The Secret to Writing Good Sentences? Read Them.

IMG_5065Lately, I’ve been judging my sentences as too clunky. They get to the point but there’s no inspiration. So I thought about what books in the past inspired me to write interesting sentences. European greats like Tolstoy, Hugo, Balzac, Dickens, James. And then American writers, mostly contemporary like Richard Ford, Haruki Murakami, Cormac McCarthy, Kazuo Ishiguro, Don DeLillo, Richard Yates, E.L. Doctorow, Jose Saramago. Why did I just list all men? There are plenty of women: Joyce Carol Oates, Barbara Kingsolver, Ann Patchett, Alice Munro, Sarah Waters, hell, even Suzanne Collins. There are too many to remember and list.

But one thing I’m convinced of is that every time I’ve read a great book, it’s helped me write more clearly and poetically. Perhaps, it’s because of intellectual osmosis or perhaps in imitation of these people, I don’t know. What I do know is if you want to write great sentences, then you have to read great writers. You can’t read Dan Brown and expect to write like Charles Frazier. What’s in the book seeps into the subconscious, one way or another.

Take this passage, from Anthony Doerr, about Werner, a German cadet, in a scene from All the Light We Cannot See. Werner realizes his friend has been apprehended and may be killed. “Werner skips lunch and walks in a daze to the school’s infirmary. He’s risking detention or worse; it’s a sunny, bright noon, but his heart is being crushed slowly in a vise, and everything is slow and hypnotic, and he watches his arm work as it pulls open the door as if he’s peering through several feet of blue water.” First off, Werner is moving from place to place, and we get a sense of the scene, a sunny, bright noon on his way to the infirmary. That bright, seemingly nice day nicely contrasts how he feels, his heart being “crushed slowly,” his world “slow and hypnotic,” and then, the minute detail of how separate his arm is, as if an independent appendage, when it opens the door. We get the sense of removal loud and clear. Doerr says it’s like “he’s peering through several feet of blue water.” These images are concrete, we can imagine them. They may even be too obvious, like a heart in a vice, but we understand, Werner’s heart is aching, his experience of life is detached. It’s a sense of “I can’t believe this is happening. It seems like a dream” to Werner. That he sees blood right after this description makes the passage even eerier and more chilling, as we can deduce what’s happened to his friend.

I don’t know that I could ever write as well as Anthony Doerr, but boy, can I learn from him. As anyone can. It doesn’t take any great academic degree or familial pedigree to improve one’s writing, just time and an interest. If willing to study sentences closely, I think what we most often find is an experienced author is willing to simply tell the vivid, concrete truth. Not to try too hard to be poetic. But to simply describe what the character sees and feels. If that can be done clearly, then poetry and profundity come naturally, and a masterful story takes place.


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