Francine Prose wrote a fine book about writing, Reading Like a Writer, which includes a chapter on Sentences. (Chapters are titled with names such as Words, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Gesture, Dialogue, and more.) In her book she celebrates the sentence and crafting wonderful ones.
To talk about sentences is to have a conversation about something far more meaningful and personal to most authors than the questions they’re most often asked, such as: Do you have a work schedule? Do you use a computer? Where do you get your ideas?
Prose goes on to show an example of what a writer can do while ignoring the advice of writing craft books. Not just any writer, but Virginia Woolf, writing in her essay, On Being Ill. Not just any sentence, but one 181 words long, which appears at the opening of the essay. (It’s shown at left; just click on it show a full-sized, readable page). Woolf’s sentence is something I share with our weekly workshop members during our eight-week sessions. “It’s not the sentence’s gigantism but rather its lucidity that makes it so worth studying and breaking down into its component parts,” Prose writes.
A good sentence is the meat on the bones of good writing. Prose writes, regarding the revision of sentences
Writers need to ask themselves
- Is this the best word I can find?
- Is my meaning clear?
- Can a word or phrase be cut without sacrificing something essential?
Perhaps the most important question is, “Is this grammatical?” A novelist friend of mine compares the rules of grammar, punctuation and usage to a sort of old fashioned etiquette. He says that writing is like inviting someone to your house. The writer is the host, the reader the guest, and you, the writer, follow the etiquette because you want your readers to be more comfortable, especially is you’re planning to serve them something they might not be expecting.
Prose adds that she revisits Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style from time to time. But most craft books like this instruct a writer what not to do. Learning from reading is a way to enter a new league of writing, once the fundamentals of grammar are in your toolkit. Literature shows us what kind of great sentences are possible to write.