Has ever more been written about less?
I am always on the lookout for new, clever books about writing (and believe me, there is no shortage of such books) and this one definitely caught my interest. But reading it was sometimes a long, slow journey through Alphabetland. It wasn’t until I was nearly halfway through the book that I felt it actually got interesting. If I wasn’t committed to reading this, as a reviewer, it’s most likely that I would have stopped well before I got to the better parts.
Author Joe Moran loves the sentence. I mean really loves the sentence. So much so that the opening sections of this book are his tribute, homage, love notes to the sentence. Am I overstating this? There are seven chapters in this book. The first one is called “A Pedant’s Apology Or why I wrote this book” and includes sentences such as:
A mathematical equation and a written sentence have much in common. Both rely on symmetry and balance, often asserting a connection between the seemingly different. Both explain reality in as elegantly concise a form as they can. Both reduce randomness to inevitability, their equals signs or clauses falling into place with a rightness that renders the inchoate and incoherent suddenly clear. Both tell us something about the world outside themselves— but both also swim in their own kind of beauty.
And while Moran is clearly passionate about which he writes, I can’t say that he was convincing. There are necessary elements of good writing, and a strong sentence structure is a key part of that. Yeah, I remember freshman English. That’s like a lecture or two in a classroom, not an entire book.
Moran never loses site of his obsession with the sentence, but as we get further into the book, the writing becomes more interesting and he gives us little nuggets of wisdom (in the form of sentences, of course): “A long sentence should feel alive, awake, kinetic, aerobic – like a poem.”
What I appreciated most was when Moran began to discuss ‘flow.’ “Flowing sentences are forward-facing, drawing what they need from the previous sentence and then setting up the next one.” This seems like a fairly obvious statement, but given some of the books I read, more writers could use this reminder. But the real wisdom comes with: “Flow should feel natural but almost never is.” Ah yes … so many writers need to feel the inspiration but forget that it really takes work.
There are plenty of pearls here. For instance:
“Listen, read and write for the sentences, because the sentence must be got right or nothing will be right.”
“A sentence is not about self-expression but about editing your thoughts into a partly feigned fluency, building a ladder of words up to a better self.”
But on the whole, I think that Moran could have taken some of his own advice:
“Reading a sentence should never be a grim duty. This obdurate fact about writing stays true however much you scale is up. Most paragraphs are longer than they need to be, likewise most chapters. Most books go on for fifty pages longer than they should, We forget this because it is less effort to speak than to listen. Writing is not a sermon, and as some point, sooner than we think, we should stop. No one is ever as interested as we are in what we have to say.”
I know some people who might find this entire book of interest (I’m thinking of you, K), but those people are generally too busy writing their own works to spend the time on this.
Looking for a good book? First You Write Sentence by Joe Moran is not just a primer on writing well or sentence structure, but practically an ode to this building block to better writing.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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First You Write a Sentence.: The Elements of Reading, Writing … and Life
author: Joe Moran
hardcover, 240 pages