Discover more from Liminal Lines
What makes a great sentence?
An exploration into the elusive craft of sentence-writing
Just like our life is measured in days, our writing is measured in sentences. And just like our days, to make it count, you must have good ones.
A manuscript will only be as good as the individual sentences that go into it. They’re the beating heart of a piece, pumping vitality and dynamism into the larger whole. It’s where the marrow of meaning can be found.
But it took me a while to realize this. Although I’ve always had a deep appreciation for well-crafted sentences, it wasn’t until recently that I started to pay more attention to them in my own writing. Sure, word choice matters – but that is simply a sub-level of a sentence. And paragraphs play a vital role too, but they can’t be any good if their components aren’t too. So that leaves us with the universal building blocks of a text: sentences.
Unfiltered stream of consciousness writing or “word vomit,” as it’s colloquially called, comes easy to most people. Writing good sentences, however, that’s hard. Fingers-frozen-on-the-keyboard kind of hard.
Taking the raw, unpolished thoughts from my brain and coalescing them into a coherent structure, while thinking about the broader argument is always a tricky step. If you’re a writer, I’m sure you’ve experienced this. You know what you want to say. You got the basic idea. It’s there. You can see it clearly. But then you put it on the page and it looks like the unfinished thoughts of a seven-year old, or worse – you’re not even convinced it’s what you truly believe.
All these struggles made me ponder on the nature of a good sentence. You could say I’m on a quest to unveil all the different ways one could construct a sentence, from the upper case letter to the capricious little point that marks its end.
One thing’s for sure: there’s no clear formula you can follow to craft a delicious sentence. As most things in life, the answer is open-ended. This is what I love about writing and what keeps me coming back to it, to ever refine it and improve it.
A sentence can be like a forest in which one gets lost, hopelessly wandering the lush habitat of imagery, being dazzled by exotic adverbs or colorful metaphors, totally immersed in a new world. Or they can embody the rigor of a scientific argument, each word like a soldier that creates an army of persuasion, each comma making you pause and ponder. According to an anecdote about J.D. Salinger, he once spent a whole morning debating the correct placement of a comma in a sentence.
But sometimes, the tapestry of a sentence is woven as you read it, making the act sufficient in itself. The joy doesn’t so much come from parsing the idea, as it does from the way a sentence reveals its meaning, slowly, deliberately, or unexpectedly. Consider this passage from To The Lighthouse, in which Mrs. Ramsay wrestles with the essence of her identity:
How did she differ? What was the spirit in her, the essential thing, by which, had you found a crumpled glove in the corner of a sofa, you would have known it, from its twisted finger, hers indisputably? She was like a bird for speed, an arrow for directness. She was willful; she was commanding.
It’s a dazzling example of introspection, radiant with sensitivity, as much as with force; it demands that you keep reading – the second question especially – because it offers a window into the inner workings of the character’s mind. The question reveals how strong she thinks her unique essence is, so much so that it can extend into her personal belongings. The nested clauses offer a kind of riddle, one that can be untangled only when you reach the end.
This made me think about my own writing and how I can build sentences – and essays as a whole – that go beyond mere relating of facts and ideas, to an active journey that ignites contemplation in the reader.
I’ve come to the conclusion that a sentence is only as good as the degree to which it generates the effect it was intended to have. In Building great sentences, Brooks Landon provides an incisive analogy for sentences:
Sentences are like hands. We use both to meet the needs of particular situations, […] to point or pick up or squeeze or gesture or sort or hold or do any of the infinite number of tasks a hand routinely performs. The point is simply to get the job done.
Many seem to be under the impression (or delusion) that the epitome of masterful writing is solving an equation for how many words a particular sentence is allowed to have, obsessively hunting adverbs or removing “fluff.” While that’s one way to go about it, it’s a limiting view on this craft. Online writers in particular can fall into this trap of efficiency, which can lead to a garment label having more personality than their articles.
We’re so concerned with what need not be in a sentence, that we seem to have forgotten what needs to be in one. Substance. Punch. Zest. And while there’s no formula, as I said, a truly great sentence must possess an unmistakable voice, a unique character that lingers long after it’s read.
Rhythm is as important as structure or word choice. In fact, I’d argue you can’t divorce rhythm from structure. In First you write a sentence, Joe Moran acknowledges the interplay of “sense and sound:”
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.
Think of those sentences read aloud by an AI, that are so prevalent on TikTok videos. You could feed the most sublime writing to that AI, and it would still sound off – not merely because of the synthetic voice devoid of warmth, but because the rhythm and pacing is basically non-existent. That monotone delivery can suck the life out of any sentence, Dementor-style.1
I realize now that reading a sentence out loud can be a great litmus test for its quality: does it read the way I intended?
Another duality of sentence-crafting is that of the Logical and the Lyrical aspects, as also acknowledged by Moron. The former may kick in when we’re building the scaffolding of our argument, and the latter is sprinkled as a delightful element on top. It’s a dance of sorts—a tango between your analytical, left-brain self and your creative, right-brain self.
But we can even leave the realm of Logic behind and only pay attention to a sentence’s form. In How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, Stanley Fish introduces a controversial idea:
It may sound paradoxical, but verbal fluency is the product of hours spent writing about nothing, just as musical fluency is the product of hours spent repeating scales.
His argument is as follows: you learn to write great sentences by first becoming accustomed with the myriad forms they can take, and filling in each component with the suitable word. As Fish put it, “You shall tie yourself to forms and the forms shall set you free.” To illustrate his point, he quotes a few lines from Lewis Caroll’s Jabberwocky, a famous nonsense poem:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
While it makes no sense, it’s not completely devoid of logic. We can intuit which words mimic verbs, like “gyre” and “gimble,” and which represent nouns, like “toves.”
To try my hand at constructing sentences from a predetermined mold, I took the following example from the same book and used it as inspiration:
The agitated conversations, mostly on politics, ebbing and flowing in intensity with passions surprising to those who voiced them, the music in the background incongruously soft and light, the children listening in shadows on the staircase wondering who these people, so familiar to them as parents, uncles, doctors, and shopkeepers, could possibly be.
I took the general tone and structure of the model and used it as a springboard to write a novel one.
This is my version: A heavy silence dominated the old town library, the spirit of dead poets infusing the atmosphere with a noble aura, seemingly endless rows of bookshelves standing as soldiers to guard the wisdom of the past, a researcher engrossed in his book, pondering over the thoughts of ancient masters, his mind dancing with ideas, as he turns the yellow pages in a ceremony-like fashion.
The nature of sentences, whether they are puzzling, luminous or stiff upper lip, can reveal to the reader a clear argument or yet unexplored crevices of their own mind.
They can play it straight, or sneak up on you; take you on a journey or meander (seemingly) without purpose; brush language against the grain or reveal elegance in simplicity. You can have the sharpness of Hemingway’s prose, the flowing rivers of Woolf’s inner monologues or the granularity of thought characteristic of Proust, as it shines through in this passage:
But they knew, either instinctively or from experience, that our impulsive emotions have but little influence over the course of our actions and the conduct of our lives; and that regard for moral obligations, loyalty to friends, patience in finishing our work, obedience to a rule of life, have a surer foundation in habits solidly formed and blindly followed than in these momentary transports, ardent but sterile.2
Read once more the sentence above, but this time pay attention to the subtle pauses you take, and how you unconsciously sync your breath to its rhythm – the cadence of your mind now intertwined with it, the places where you slow down or the ones you glide through, the anticipation, the way you try to guess where the words will take you.
All great sentences are also experiences in and of themselves.
I’ll leave you with a final idea: in their diversity lies their beauty, each sentence a singular act of creation that showcases the endless possibilities of language and thought.
Just as we design our days to give life meaning, so too do we form our sentences to inject soul into our writing. And so, one day at a time, one sentence at a time, I’ll keep refining both my life and my craft.
In the Harry Potter books, Dementors are wraith-like creatures that serve as a kind of embodiment of darkness. They have the ability to suck the soul out of a person through a process known as the “Dementor’s Kiss.”
Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time