How to Write a Sentence

Monday’s post on how to write a paragraph was well received on Twitter. Caught up in all the excitement, I foolishly accepted Felippe Medeiros’s challenge to write the corresponding post about sentences. I must say that I did so fully aware that this will be a much, much harder post to write. Not that it’s harder to write sentences than paragraphs, of course (the one consists of several of the other), but it is substantially more difficult to explain what one does when one writes a sentence than it is to explain what one does when one composes a paragraph. To use an imperfect analogy, it’s easier to give you directions to City Hall than to explain how your legs work. Sentences, we might say, are to paragraphs as taking a step is to going somewhere. It’s only once we pay attention to it that we realize how subtle and how stylish such a simple thing can be.

Begin with a fact. Most sentences are true or false, and facts are what make them one or the other. So, when you’re writing a sentence, make sure that you have a clear idea in your mind of the fact you are trying to represent. You want that same fact to become present in the mind of your reader when they read it. What words, in what order, would make you see the fact with your mind’s eye? Sentences are marvelous things because they conjure up images, and, while those images are not, perhaps, ultimately what the sentences mean (they could mean for you to feel something, or do something, or think something — or something something else, for that matter, if you wish), it’s a good idea to be mindful of the images you evoke when you write. As George Orwell pointed out many years ago, a great deal of bad writing comes out of stringing words and phrases together that are completely unrelated to any pictures that might form in any human being’s head. That’s why I say: start with a fact. Imagine it. Then think of the sentence as an attempt to write the fact down. Make the sentence a window on your mind.

Now, think of your reader. What is your reader doing at this point in the text? What was the reader thinking of just before they got to the sentence you are about to write? Unless it’s the very first sentence, they were doing exactly what you were telling them to do: imagining the fact that your last sentence was about. Was that hard? Should you give them a simpler task this time? Or is your reader ready for something harder? Can the reader handle a lot of detail at this moment, or should you present the fact in its general outline? In what order should the elements of the picture come before the reader? Will you give your reader a thing in motion or the motion of a thing? Do you want your reader to come away with the name of a person or to be left with a clear impression of their relation to another? Remember that when you are writing a sentence you are deciding the exact order that a string of words will pass through the mind of your reader. If your reader is well-behaved (playing by the rules) you are in complete control of your reader’s mind. You must use this power only for good.

“I am a grammarian,” wrote Gertrude Stein. “We will or will not cry together.” That was back in 1931 in a book called How to Write, which you can read for your own pleasure and at your own risk. “Do not worry,” said Hemingway to himself, probably around the same time, in his garret overlooking the rooftops of Paris. “You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” Somewhere between Miss Stein’s stream of consciousness and Papa Hemingway’s dignity of movement, may you find your style. May it become absolutely your own.

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