Are you a reader who values a writer's style as much as the meaning it conveys?

Are you a writer who seeks to refine your own style?

Would you like to improve your understanding of the techniques writers use to create beautiful sentences?

Welcome to the search for the perfect sentence!

Most readers and writers focus on the content of a piece--the ideas it conveys, the story it carries, the events it chronicles. "So many books, so little time" we readers chorus, rushing through our stories, newspapers, websites. "Is it finished?" we writers ask. "Have I written enough words? Have I gotten the content across?"

Here we'll focus on the style of writing more than its content. We'll slow down. We'll read very short passages, sometimes single sentences, and we'll savor their wordcraft. We'll examine why each word was chosen, how they were arranged into sentences, and how those sentences evoke our responses. In the process, I hope we'll become more careful, perceptive readers and more effective writers.

Beautiful writing is everywhere--on the sports page of the morning paper, in the novel that relaxes you at night, in your grandmother's love letters found in the attic. If you would like to contribute a passage for close reading, with or without your own interpretation of its techniques, please email me at

Monday, January 9, 2012

Hamilton Cain: Playing with Parts of Speech

Changing nouns or adjectives into verbs--prioritize, activate--is a natural part of our ever-changing  language, even though many writers and editors hate such forms. Multi-syllabic verbs with Latinate suffixes can indeed bog down our sentences. But a skilled writer, by turning a word on its ear and slipping it into an unusual place in a sentence, can illuminate meaning in an original and pleasing way.

Hamilton Cain is one such writer, as seen in these sentences from his memoir This Boy's Faith:

     a screen door resined with insects

    Now she’d embedded herself in the ball of my skull, where she preyed like a Venus flytrap on the thoughts that buzzed there, her leaves hinged open, waiting to spring.

    the muddy, serpentine rivers that veined the South

   The path horseshoed behind the falls.

    He lunged across the blanket and hooked Craig in an elbow vise, toppling Trudie’s Fanta can and geysering fizz over her baloney sandwich and a slick of wax paper.

    I’d bask in the spiritual passion raying out from the canvases of Tiepolo and Fra Angelico at the Metropolitan Museum.

You have to be a writer of great instinct and precision to use this technique well. The new form of the old word has to fit smoothly in the sentence, enhancing the meaning without drawing attention to itself. I've seen awkward, self-conscious attempts that make me cringe, so finding a writer who does it sparingly and subtly is a joy.

Cain gives a verb a different kind of twist here:

    There’s a raft of poinsettias along the marble-topped Lord’s Supper table, in florist poses around the pulpit, a swath of crimson that aches the eyes, beautifully static, petals crisp as wax paper.

Ache is a common verb (as well as a noun), at least when used intransitively: My head aches. Cain makes it transitive--taking an object, eyes--and this small twist adds a bit of poetry to the sentence. 


  1. Hi, I like your blog. It helps me to learn English. Though I'm not up to that level to understand all the things you've written here...

    I'm trying to read backward what you've blogging... Nice to know you and your blog!!! :)

  2. I mean my English is not up to the level to enjoy all the "beauty" of English that you've shown in the reading. But I'll try harder to understand and enjoy them...