Joe Moran’s First You Write a Sentence. suggests an exercise to help you learn to write better sentences.
Learn from the artistry of others when you try this exercise described by Moran.
Find a sentence you like and look at it for a distressingly long time, until you start to see past its sense into its shape. As with a painting, the trick is not to exhume some buried symbolism or esoteric meaning, but only to make time to look. Take the sentence apart and reverse-engineer it, the way computer programmers do when they dismantle software to see if they can copy it without infringing the rights. Turn its shape into a dough-cutter for your own sentences. Learn to love the feel of sentences, the arcs of anticipation and suspense, the balancing phrases, the wholesome little snap of the full stop.
I’m not a good literary analyst. I often felt like the “weak link” in the writers group that helped me give birth to Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients. However, I’ll share my analysis to keep you from feeling intimidated by the exercise.
Moran’s paragraph is striking for its use of metaphors. I especially like “Turn its shape into a dough-cutter for your own sentences.” That’s a nice short sentence—and I love short sentences.
However, my love of short sentences suggests that perhaps I should look at Moran’s work for how to use long sentences gracefully. The last sentence of his paragraph has 24 words, yet it flows easily. That may be partly because the sentence is not a mishmash of dependent clauses. I can read about each of the loves—”the feel of sentences, the arcs of anticipation and suspense, the balancing phrases, the wholesome little snap of the full stop”—without worrying about which other part of the sentence they relate to. It also uses some unusual word combinations. How often have you thought about the “feel” of a sentence? “The wholesome little snap of the full stop” made me smile.
The next time you see a sentence that you like, pause. Copy it for later analysis, or, if you have the time, analyze it on the spot.
If you learn something from this exercise, I’d love to hear about it.
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