Academic writing Writing

Joe Moran: First You Write a Sentence, Pt. 1

This post is a tribute to Joe Moran’s lovely book, First You Write a Sentence.  It’s part of my ongoing series of posts about issues in writing and books on writing.  What I like so much about Moran’s take on the subject is that he not only gives cogent advice for how to write better, but also he provides a stellar model of how to do so with grace and flair.

Moran Book Cover

Let’s start with the elements.

A sentence brings together a noun, which names a thing, with a verb, which says something about that thing. That is all a sentence needs: everything else is optional. If you put the right nouns and verbs in the right slots, the other words fall into place around them.

That sounds easy, but of course it’s not.

Sentences that fail are a dialogue of the deaf. Reading one is like listening to someone in a nightclub over a pounding bassline. You can feel the writer’s hot breath on your cheek but the words are muffled. All you end up with is an earful of broken syntax and spit. The sentence has not tried hard enough to reach the reader, or it has tried too hard and died in the attempt. It could shout at you for eternity and not give up its secrets. These are enduring laments about writing.

Don’t you just love the way he puts this?  I love the “writer’s hot breath” and the “earful of broken syntax and spit.”

Inflected languages, such as German and Latin, don’t rely on word order as much as English does, because the subject and object can be identified by word endings no matter where they appear in the sentence.  Syntax is how English arranges words to make sense.

That neat bit of open-source software, syntax, lets us tap into a vast shared wisdom about how words best join together, and devise word orders that feel right and that make us sound wise. Writing a sentence is a way of withdrawing intelligence for free from this syntactical cashpoint that never runs empty.

Word order gives direction to the sentence, and, at every step along the way, it tightens the reader’s focus toward the end point.

A sentence, as it proceeds, is a gradual paring away of options. Each added word, because of English’s reliance on word order, reduces the writer’s alternatives and narrows the reader’s expectations. Yet even up to the last word the writer has choices and can throw in a curveball. A sentence can begin in one place and end in another galaxy, without breaking a single grammatical rule.

Prose needs to make sense, and syntax guides us how to do this correctly.  But it also wants to sing, at least some of the time.  Music can emerge from any text if the writer develops an ear for it.  

A sentence is more than its meaning. It is a line of words where logic and lyric meet – a piece of both sense and sound, even if that sound is heard only in the head. Things often thought to be peculiar to poetry – metre, rhythm, music – are there in prose as well, or should be. When John Betjeman began a BBC radio talk with the sentence ‘We came to Looe by unimportant lanes’, he must have known it sounded better than ‘We drove to Looe via the minor roads.’ His version is ten syllables with the stress on each second syllable: a perfect iambic pentameter.

Worse than the words being wrongly arranged is putting them in an order that neither moves nor sings. The sentence just limps and wheezes along to its sad end with a tuneless clank. When the writer has a tin ear for the sound of a sentence then the reader knows, just as when she hears flat or pitchy singing, that something is wrong, even if she can’t quite say why.

The need to make your sentences sing often seems unattainable, and it can’t be forced.  So it’s reassuring to learn that writing is an acquired skill rather than  something you’re born with.  Your sentences may not often be things of beauty, but they can be reliably clear and convincing.  After all, writing is not just how we express our ideas; it’s how we develop our ideas.  The clarity is not a preexisting condition but a consequence of writing.

Writing, Kurt Vonnegut once said, allows ‘mediocre people who are patient and industrious to revise their stupidity, to edit themselves into something like intelligence’.

But one of the hardest lessons to learn about writing is that no one who reads your prose knows what you intended to say if you didn’t say it clearly enough for them to understand.

This, according to Verlyn Klinkenborg, is the lesson a writer learns most reluctantly of all. ‘It’s necessary to write as if your sentences will be orphaned, because they will be,’ he writes. ‘When called to the stand in the court of meaning, your sentences will get no coaching from you. They’ll say exactly what their words say, and if that makes you look ridiculous or confused, guess what?’ Once our sentences are written and sent out into the world to be read, they are on their own. Most of us cling to a residual belief that we will still be there, hovering over the reader as she reads, to explain, when she stumbles over our words, what we really meant. We won’t.

But our sentences are not quite orphans. What they really are is children with parents who love them but who can do nothing to help them.

I’ll be picking up more insights from Moran’s book in a later post. Stay tuned. Better yet, read the book yourself.

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