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How to improve your sentences immediately
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Each sentence reflects three choices.
- What to write about and what we want to accomplish by writing about it
- Which words to use
- What order to put them in
That’s it, according to Professor Brooks Landon, the author behind a course on building great sentences. He also calls the first choice a proposition, which is not to be confused with a come-on from Seventh Avenue, but a statement about reality that can be accepted or rejected. In the same vein, the sentence for the purpose of this letter is the basic building block of all writing. It is not a punishment decided in a court of law.
The simplicity of these choices is what is appealing. What we intend to say and what we accomplish may not be the same thing. That’s the genius of the second and third choices: just which words to use and what order to put them in. Do the words effectively support what it is we want to say, or the proposition(s) for that sentence?
Invisible God created the visible world.* In this example, Brooks show us six simple words in an order that puts forth three propositions. God created the world. God is invisible. The world is visible.
In Ann Patchett’s essay, How to Practice, she writes about getting rid of her possessions. Here are two short passages.
“I wonder if we could just pretend to move,” I said to Karl that night over dinner. “Would it be possible? Go through everything we own and then stay where we are?” (These Precious Days, p. 62)
The feeling that came to take its place was lightness. This was the practice: I was starting to get rid of my possessions, at least the useless ones, because possessions stood between me and death. (p. 69)
Read the sentences closely. OR, do a close reading. What are the propositions in each sentence?
Even in isolation without the context of the rest of the essay, the propositions she makes, her word choice and order, support the theme. They challenge her ideas about possessions and the weight of carrying, the final clause an ultimate and painful reality: possessions stood between her and death. She had just helped her childhood friend manage the hoard her father had collected in his life. Sitting around during the pandemic made Patchett consider all the junk in her own home.
Lightness. This is the final word of the first sentence in the second passage. I’ve been wondering about the stuff in my life too. Convinced as I was after reading this dialogue with Karl, I tried it out on my own husband. Could we pretend to move and purge, then just stay where we are?
Three choices we must make in every sentence: what proposition(s), what words, what order.
Do the words and order support the proposition(s) we want the sentence to make? If not, edit and revise. Start over.
*Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft by Professor Brooks Landon, The University of Iowa. One of the best courses and studies on writing at the sentence level I have come across.
These Precious Days by Ann Patchett, “How to Practice”
Port-Royal Grammar, source of the original statement about God and the world in French, an organization focused on the philosophy of language.