Building Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read (Great Courses)

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9780452298606: Building Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read (Great Courses)

Based on the bestselling series from The Great Courses, Building Great Sentences celebrates the sheer joy of language—and will forever change the way you read and write.

Great writing begins with the sentence. Whether it’s two words (“Jesus wept.”) or William Faulkner’s 1,287-word sentence in Absalom! Absalom!, sentences have the power to captivate, entertain, motivate, educate, and, most importantly, delight. Yet, the sentence-oriented approach to writing is too often overlooked in favor of bland economy. Building Great Sentences teaches you to write better sentences by luxuriating in the pleasures of language.

Award-winning Professor Brooks Landon draws on examples from masters of long, elegant sentences—including Don DeLillo, Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion, and Samuel Johnson—to reveal the mechanics of how language works on thoughts and emotions, providing the tools to write powerful, more effective sentences.

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About the Author:

Dr. Brooks Landon is Herman J. and Eileen S. Schmidt Professor of English and Collegiate Fellow at The University of Iowa and Director of the University’s General Education Literature Program. He lives in Iowa.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

We live in a world of words. Digital media inundate us with language in a twenty-four/seven barrage never possible in the world of printer’s ink. Constant Web updates, blogs, e-mails, instant messaging, tweets, Facebook comments, and a cascade of electronic texts give us expanded opportunities to share our writing with others. Even in the age of Skype and FaceTime we continue to interact with others through writing. More and more it is important that we represent ourselves to the world through writing that is effective—clear, precise, satisfyingly informative writing that reveals the individuality and sophistication of our thinking. And we cannot be effective writers without writing effective sentences.

Whatever the medium, print or digital, our basic unit of communication is the sentence. Good sentences are alive. We experience them in time, and we react to their unfolding as they twist and turn, challenging us, teasing us, surprising us, and sometimes boring or confusing us as we read them. This book will explore the ways we can make our sentences better. To accomplish that we need to understand how making our sentences longer or shorter can make them more effective, more informative, more satisfying. We need to understand how taking control of building and trimming our sentences can improve our writing.

Our goals will be to learn about how sentences work, what they do, and how we can think and talk about them in ways that will help both our own writing and our understanding of prose style. We will stretch our sense of all the things a sentence can be or do. We will explore the mysterious concept of “style” to discover what style does and does not mean. This is a book in which we will dance with language, not a book in which we will trudge toward remedial correctness.

Dancing with language can be a rowdy affair. We might wish this dance had the precision, rules, and predictability of a tango, but it probably has much more in common with freestyle dancing that is more spontaneous and more creative, open to new steps and encouraging the reinterpretation of old ones. When the writer dances with language, toes do sometimes get stepped on as rules are broken. Of course, in dancing, as in writing, we need some ideas of what the rules are before we can break them. Before this dancing metaphor runs away with me, however, I better start talking as the writing teacher I am, rather than the dancing instructor I most certainly am not.

I’m no writing guru with mystical formulas for success. I am both a longtime student of writing theory and a writing teacher with over thirty years of experience. During that time, I’ve both learned a lot about writing and passed along what I’ve learned to several generations of students. What I believe and teach about writing is more thoughtful than theoretical, based more on what I’ve found helpful to my students in the classroom than on strict adherence to any single philosophy or theory of composition. My approach to teaching writing does, however, grow out of the three broad categories of writing instruction that are focused on the sentence.

At the heart of my approach is Francis Christensen’s belief in the value of cumulative sentences built by adding modifying phrases to base clauses or “kernel” sentences. I expand Christensen’s advocacy of cumulative sentences by identifying and explaining the value of a range of syntactical and rhetorical patterns, forms, or schemes I ask my students to imitate until they learn how to adapt these patterns to their own uses. In trusting the value of imitation as a basis for rather than as the opposite of creativity, I am championing a classical approach to writing I believe remains highly effective. The third component of my approach to writing incorporates many of the assumptions of sentence-combining strategies popular in the 1970s. I’ll say more about the nature and history of those three sentence-based approaches in my final chapter, after you’ve had a chance to experience and try out some of my particular spin on their methods and assumptions. For now I want to assure you that my approach to building great sentences grows out of pedagogies of proven effectiveness and promotes ways of building better sentences that fine writers know and practice. In drawing from and finding ways to combine these three broad approaches to the sentence I also try to provide a better understanding of the ways in which our standards and “rules” for effective writing have changed over time—and continue to evolve.

No rules or formulas or mechanical protocols can prepare us for the infinite number of tasks our sentences must accomplish, but there are a number of basic strategies we can learn that help make our sentences more effective. I’m going to introduce you to a broad range of techniques, but a particular favorite of mine is the cumulative sentence, an especially useful syntax employed by professional writers and best understood in terms first laid out by composition theorist Francis Christensen back in the 1960s.

Before we can work with a specific syntax, we need to understand the basic principles that guide the creation and use of all sentences. Accordingly, this book will look closely and carefully at sentences from a number of different angles, starting with their underlying logic and moving through the reasons why we cannot separate the content of a sentence from its form, its meaning from its style. We will look at the ways sentences work, from the most basic kernel sentences that are nothing more than a subject joined with a verb, to the most elaborate and extended master sentences, some stretching to lengths of more than one hundred words.

In examining the ways in which sentences work and why they sometimes don’t work, we will also encounter, understand, and possibly even master some of the secrets of prose style. Everyone who writes about prose style advances a particular view of it, and each view reflects the personal values and preferences of that particular writer. Yet somehow we generally agree that there is something called prose style. We generally agree on a number of aspects of writing that seem to have something to do with style, and we generally agree that there are some writers, ranging from Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion to John Updike, Don DeLillo to Marilynne Robinson, who just seem to be better at it than others. When

F. Scott Fitzgerald writes in The Great Gatsby, describing Daisy, “Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth, but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered ‘Listen,’ a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour,” who can doubt that we are in the hands of a great writer?

This book can’t begin to explain all of the mysteries of prose style. Nor can it offer universally agreed-upon standards for writing that is great or even effective. What this book can do is look closely and carefully at sentences, the most important building blocks of prose, the foundation of written communication, and the essential units of prose style. I hope you will join me in considering and celebrating the magic of the sentence as you think about and try out some of the writing strategies I suggest in this book. All of my ideas about sentences may not fit your goals for your own writing, but I hope you will find my discussion useful even when you do not agree with some of its parts. My ultimate goal, you see, is not to get you to agree with me about a specific view of writing but to encourage you to join me in the much larger and more important enterprise of exploring the power and promise of language.

Next Steps

At the end of each chapter in Building Great Sentences I’ll suggest some writing exercises that may help illustrate the ideas and methods explored in the chapter. Writing is a purpose-driven activity and most of our day-to-day writing purposes call on us to construct something longer than an individual sentence. Yet, in this book my advice will rarely be about units of prose larger than the sentence. The classic advice given to backpackers trying to limit the weight they have to carry is “Pay attention to the ounces, and the pounds take care of themselves.” Something very similar is true of writing: “Pay attention to your sentences, and most other writing problems take care of themselves.” Nevertheless, in my Prose Style class at Iowa I do suggest to my students that they craft their responses to specific syntactic assignments as if the individual sentences were part of a larger writing project. I suggest they imagine that they are writing their autobiography or a description of how they mastered a skill or learned a lesson. They might imagine they are writing a profile of someone who had a significant impact on their lives. You may have an actual writing project to which you can direct your sentence experiments or you may actually prefer to craft your sentences with no connections among them other than the range of your imagination. Most of the exercises I will suggest as Next Steps involve so many variables that they will not elicit sentences that are right or wrong. But they will help you understand how sentences work—and what can make them great.



Chapter One

 

A Sequence of Words

"This is what I mean when I call myself a writer,” writes novelist Don DeLillo. “I construct sentences.” Thomas Berger, the author of Little Big Man and a writer, like DeLillo, long celebrated for the vitality of his language, makes much the same point when he terms the sentence “the cell beyond which the life of the book cannot be traced, a novel being a structure of such cells.” As Berger explains:

In another sense, only the sentence exists or at any rate can be proved to exist. Even at the stage of the paragraph, things are becoming theoretical and arbitrary. A “novel” is an utter hallucination: no definition of it, for example, can really distinguish it from a laundry list. But a sentence—there you have something essential, to which nothing can be added and from which nothing can be taken.

Of course, the sentence in which Berger describes the sentence as “something essential, to which nothing can be added and from which nothing can be taken” is not just a sentence—that’s a great sentence! And here’s the beauty of great sentences: they come in all shapes and sizes and lots of different things can make them great. Great precision and specificity, great dramatic impact, great sound, great ways in which they direct the reader’s thinking, great ways in which they reveal the writer’s mind at work, great logical progression, great imagery—and the list goes on and on. Once we start looking at and thinking about individual sentences, rather than simply thinking of the sentence as just another brick in a wall of words, once we consider the sentence with the care we bring to the reading of poetry, we separate ourselves from most other readers and writers and can set out in pursuit of greatness. Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Michael Cunningham should be our guide here, with his wonderful comment: “I’m still hoping to write a great sentence. If I do, I’ll let you know.”

I think I know why Cunningham, DeLillo, and Berger declare their passionate allegiance to the sentence, and while I don’t pretend to write sentences as well as they do, I believe that the sentence is where we must start if we hope to understand why some writing captivates us and other writing leaves us unmoved. To be better writers, we must first and foremost write better sentences. I’m absolutely certain that whatever great writing may be, the secret to achieving it has largely to do with learning how to write great sentences. So, as I said before, this will be a book about sentences. Even more bluntly, this will be a book about how to make sentences longer.

Why longer? It’s hard to improve on any of the well-known, justly celebrated one- and two-word sentence classics our culture has enshrined. “Jesus wept,” the shortest verse in the New Testament, comes to mind, as does “Nuts!” the famous reply offered by General Anthony McAuliffe, acting commander of the 101st Airborne, when the Germans demanded his surrender during the Battle of the Bulge. But no one can really teach how to write one- and two-word sentences, and most of us will go a lifetime without being presented with the opportunity for crafting stunning short sentences. So, for reasons I hope to make clear as we go along, this is a book about how we make sentences longer, and it’s based on my assumption that longer sentences—and this is important—when carefully crafted and tightly controlled, are essential keys to great writing. Listen to Joseph Conrad’s elegantly balanced and extended sentence describing a native woman in Heart of Darkness, a sentence I truly love: “She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress.” I find that sentence more interesting as a sentence than either “Nuts!” or “Jesus wept.”

There’s an old advertising slogan originally made famous by a cigarette manufacturer: “It’s not how long you make it, but how you make it long.” We will not be making sentences longer to showcase our big vocabularies or simply because we can. A longer sentence is not necessarily a better sentence, but a sentence containing more useful information, more specific detail, and more explanation will almost always be better than a shorter sentence that lacks that information, detail, and explanation. And longer sentences, when they are appropriate, need to be carefully designed and controlled in ways that make them easy to follow and understand: more information, detail, and explanation are wasted if the reader cannot easily keep in mind what the sentence is doing. My goal is to show you how to add to the informational texture of your sentences—their propositional content—and consider their affective or dramatic impact on your readers.

What Sentences Do

“Why should a sequence of words be anything but a pleasure?” Gertrude Stein once asked. Certainly the sequences of words we identify as sentences are capable of providing pleasure, just as surely as they are capable of conveying crucial information. Sometimes the most important information sentences convey is pleasure, as they unfold their meanings in ways that tease, surprise, test, and satisfy. Sometimes the way sentences unfold their meaning is the most important meaning they offer.

Let’s start by thinking about what a sentence is and how it works, and let’s start with that sentence from Gertrude Stein: “Why should a sequence of words be anything but a pleasure?” We know sentences can function as exclamations, imperatives, declarations, or interrogatives, and this one seems at first glance to be an interrogative. It asks a question. It’s a simple question. Or is it? Isn’t it really a declaration that a sequence of words should be a pleasure? Or is it an invitation to list the numerous occasions when a sequence of words is definitely not a pleasure? “I have a case of stomach flu” comes to mind, or “The Internal Revenue Service has selected your return from last year for an audit.” Not much pleasure there! Or is it an argument that language should do nothing but give pleasure? Does it almost have the force of an exclamation—saying, in effect, “Words in sequence—always a pleasure!” What does this seemingly simple sequence of words actually mean? How does it actu...

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Descripción Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2013. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. Based on the bestselling series from The Great Courses, Building Great Sentences celebrates the sheer joy of language and will forever change the way you read and write. Great writing begins with the sentence. Whether it s two words ( Jesus wept. ) or William Faulkner s 1,287-word sentence in Absalom! Absalom!, sentences have the power to captivate, entertain, motivate, educate, and, most importantly, delight. Yet, the sentence-oriented approach to writing is too often overlooked in favor of bland economy. Building Great Sentences teaches you to write better sentences by luxuriating in the pleasures of language. Award-winning Professor Brooks Landon draws on examples from masters of long, elegant sentences including Don DeLillo, Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion, and Samuel Johnson to reveal the mechanics of how language works on thoughts and emotions, providing the tools to write powerful, more effective sentences. Nº de ref. de la librería ABZ9780452298606

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