Brain Pickings

Several Short Sentences About Writing

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“You can say smart, interesting, complicated things using short sentences. How long is a good idea?”

“If there is a magic in story writing,” admonished Henry Miller, “and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another.” And yet, famous advice on writing abounds.

In Several Short Sentences About Writing (public library), author and New York Times editorial board member Verlyn Klinkenborg does away with much of the traditional wisdom on writing and dissects the sentence — its structure, its intention, its semantic craftsmanship — to deliver a new, useful, and direct guide to the art of storytelling.

Klinkenborg writes in the introduction:

Like most received wisdom, what people think they know about writing works in subtle, subterranean ways. For some reason, we seem to believe most strongly in the stuff that gets into our heads without our knowing or remembering how it got there. What we think we know bout writing sounds plausible. It confirms our generally false ideas about creativity and genius. But none of this means it’s true.

[…]

Unlearning what I learned in college — teaching myself to write well — is the basis of what I know. So is a lifetime of reading and a love of language.

[…]

This is a book full of starting points. Perhaps they’ll help you find enough clarity in your own mind and your own writing to discover what it means to write. I don’t mean ‘write the way I do’ or ‘write the way they do.’ I mean ‘write the way you do.’

A short sampling of advice:

Know what each sentence says,
What it doesn’t say,
And what it implies.
Of these, the hardest is knowing what each sentence actually says.

There are innumerable ways to write badly.
The usual way is making sentences that don’t say what you think they do.

The only link between you and the reader is the sentence you’re making.

You can’t revise or discard what you don’t consciously recognize.

These assumptions are prohibitions and obligations are the imprint of your education and the culture you live in.
Distrust them.

Speaking to the power of ignorance and the negative space of knowledge:

What you don’t know about writing is also a form of knowledge, though much harder to grasp.
Try to discern the shape of what you don’t know and why you don’t know it,
Whenever you get a glimpse of your ignorance.
Don’t fear it or be embarrassed by it.
Acknowledge it.
What you don’t know and why you don’t know it are information too.

Complementing E. B. White’s case against absolutism when it comes to brevity and length:

You can say smart, interesting, complicated things using short sentences.
How long is a good idea?
Does it become less good if it’s expressed in two sentences instead of one?

[…]

There’s nothing wrong with well-made, strongly constructed, purposeful long sentences.
But long sentences often tend to collapse or break down or become opaque or trip over their awkwardness.
They’re pasted together with false syntax.
And rely on words like ‘with’ and ‘as’ to lengthen the sentence.
They’re short on verbs, weak in syntactic vigor,
Full of floating, unattached phrases, often out of position.
And worse — the end of the sentence commonly forgets its beginning,
As if the sentence were a long, weary road to the wrong place.

[…]

Writing short sentences will help you write strong, balanced sentences of any length.
Strong, lengthy sentences are really just strong, short sentences joined in various ways.

Klinkenborg synthesizes our arsenal of writing thusly:

  1. What you’ve been taught.
  2. What you assume is true because you’ve heard it repeated by others.
  3. What you feel, no matter how subtle.
  4. What you don’t know.
  5. What you learn from your own experience.

These are the ways we know nearly everything about the world around us.

Unusual and unusually useful, Several Short Sentences About Writing comes as a fine addition to these essential books on how to write better.

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