Book review of “First You Write a Sentence” by Joe Moran

This book made me happy. Who knew reading a book about sentences could be so rewarding? I’ve only come across a few writing books so far, including Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, that’s so absorbing. It was both educational and inspiring, academic and practical – strengthening my resolve to keep writing. I felt like I was in a lecture room, being enthralled by a passionate instructor with a vast background in the humanities (often quoting other writers) and life in general.

What I love was how Moran challenges some common writing best practices – treating it as an art, often comparing it to music, rather than a handbook. Things that are contrary to what I’ve learned: the reader can live with more repetition and how these echoes within and between sentences to shed light on what was said. We want to keep things short and not be afraid to spend words where it matters.

You know when you read a passage and get an ah-ha moment or when you feel like someone eloquently describes your sentiments? I’ve had many of these instances and had to capture the quotes with my phone camera while reading.

Here are some that stood out (I will likely print some of these and tape them to my wall):

On life

Some wisdom for writers.

“Most skilled writers see writing this way, less a form of self-expression than as a way of releasing them from confused and faltering self they usually present to others.” – Y. B. Yeats (p. 31)

“Life can be both concrete and abstract – and the abstract can feel very concrete. Merton came to think that much of modern life was a lie we told each other, a shadow we chased after while ignoring the world around us. What we needed more than happiness was approval, and it was destroying our chance of happiness.” (p. 51)

“And so the cliché is true: writing is rewriting. A few fortunate writers say they feel the flow while writing. For most of us, writing never flows while we are doing it, and we must make do with rewriting to make it flow for the reader.” (p. 194)

On nouny writing

I see a lot of buzzwords in marketing writing. And now I have an explanation for why they make your sentences stale.

“Giving nothingness the qualities of being is a good summary of how not to use adjectives.” (p. 104)

“In nouny writing, anything can be claimed and nothing can be felt. No one says who did what to whom, or take ownership or blame.”  (p. 61)

On style

Some ways to spice up your sentences.

“A sentence written solely via some slide-rule calculus of readability will never be quite good enough. Writing has to be humanly messy, non-algorithmically flawed, to be truly readable. “(p. 129)

“Taking up too much of your reader’s life by having him read sentences barnacled with needless words, is an ungenerous act. Cutting words is a silent, invisible gift to that reader – and thankless task, inevitably, since no one but you knows you have done it.” (p. 101)

“A fresh metaphor acts on both tenor and vehicle. It aims to make the strange familiar and ends up making the familiar strange.” (p. 55)

Your sentences should mimic the naturalness of speech, so long as you remember that speech is not really natural and that writing is not really like speech.” (p. 211)

“A sentence is a company of words, not a series of slots to be filled by stand-ins. Alter one word and you alter it all. A bad sentence can never be saved by wrapping words; better throw it out and start again.” (p. 178

“Alternating repetition with novelty gives writing its music, just as it gives music its magic. Repetition is fine if you and the reader know you are doing it.” (p. 180)

On flow

There’s a certain cadence to writing. I like the music analogy.

“We forget that writing is not about telling all, sweeping up the contents of the world and emptying them into the refuse bin of a sentence, but also withholding and releasing what we have to say bit by bit, because sentences can only be read bit by bit. For some reason we ignore the solution staring back at us: add a full stop and start again.” (p. 126)

“Think of sentences climbing slowly up its syntactical hill before rolling down quickly to the full stop at the bottom.” (p. 148)

“When you vary the length of your sentences, two things happen. First, as you fit your thoughts into shorter and longer forms, you come up with better wordings. Second, your writing will, as if by magic. Second, your writing will, as if by magic, fill with life and voice.” (p. 181)

And finally, on writing long sentences

In copywriting 101, I’m often given the advice to keep writing as short as possible. But sometimes, especially in fiction writing, you’ll want to have long sentences as long as they’re done artfully.

“More likely, long sentences are just overgrown graveyards where unconvincing arguments are conveniently buried.” (p. 130)

“A long sentence can seem thrillingly out of breath, deliciously tantalizing, so long as we feel the writer is still in charge. It is like listening to a great singer as he holds his breath and prolongs a phrase.” (p. 134)

“Only when you learn to separate clauses and phrases properly with commas can you write long sentences of lucidity and grace.” (p. 147)

“Think of long sentences as a poem and it will always be clear because each part of it will unravel in little musical phrases, with all the different parts colouring one another without it ever feeling discordant.” (p. 152)


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