In “Letter from the Pulitzer Fiction Jury: What Really Happened This Year” (The New Yorker online, July 9, 2012), Michael Cunningham, one of the three Pulitzer fiction jurors for 2012, wrote the following about sentences:
– I was the language crank, the one who swooned over sentences. I could forgive much in a book if it was written with force and beauty, if its story was told in a voice unlike anything I’d heard before, if the writer was finding new and mesmerizing ways to employ the same words that have been available to all American writers for hundreds of years. I tended to balk if a book contained some good lines but also some indifferent ones. I insisted that every line should be a good one. I was—and am—a bit fanatical on the subject.
True to his word, during the jury process, Cunningham argued successfully to eliminate a contender because, “although there were plenty of good lines, there were simply too many slack, utilitarian ones.”
Since July I’ve been thinking about Cunningham’s insistence that every sentence should be a good one. I would periodically look for his letter online, and, having forgotten I’d already printed it, print it again. When I was going through a pile of articles in my office recently, I found I had three copies. Then, Pam Houston, when reading my novel-in-progress, marked a sentence with this word: boring. When I took a closer look, she was right. The sentence was boring. And utilitarian. Only there to move the reader from point A to point B.
I don’t read looking for bad sentences, and now I wonder if I read right over them. Or do the best books not contain bad sentences?
Is it possible to write a whole book of sentences that are at least good?
I pulled books from my shelves and searched through them. I ignored sentences I had underlined, and I ignored first sentences—both of books and of chapters. Where would a bad sentence hide? Page one hundred forty-three, I thought. That’s where a bad sentence would hide. So in each of the books, I turned to the first complete sentence (that was not dialogue) on page one hundred forty-three. Here’s what I found, starting with the language crank’s own sentences:
–The Hours: This cake says “Happy Birthday Dan” in elegant white script, uncrowded by the clusters of yellow roses.
-By Nightfall: Rebecca sips contemplatively at her coffee.
-Mourning Diary, by Roland Barthes: M’s fit of anger yesterday evening.
-The Two Kinds of Decay, by Sarah Manguso: This adrenal suppression occurs if prednisone is taken for longer than seven days.
-The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion: She was reaching a point at which she would need once again to be, if she was to recover, on her own.
–Stop-Time, by Frank Conroy: The balcony trembled.
We hear plenty about writing great sentences; what we don’t hear enough about is the bar we don’t want to slip below—the bar each sentence must meet. And that is not the bar of great but the bar of good. These six sentence examples are not great, but I believe each one meets the crank’s requirement of good.
What makes a sentence good?
Is it the quality of the words (strong verbs, for example), the details, the content or message, the rhythm, the voice, the tone, the length, that it is complicated or simple, that it is substantial, that it is clever?
Perhaps good is best defined by what a sentence is not: indifferent, slack, utilitarian, boring. Since it’s more effective to work toward a positive than away from a negative, let’s look at seven ways to revise a sentence—seven ways to take a sentence from boring to good.
1. Add detail.
a. An unusual detail and/or a detail that is personal to the narrator.
-May Sarton in Journal of a Solitude: There is nothing to be done but go ahead with life moment by moment and hour by hour—put out birdseed, tidy the rooms, try to create order and peace around me even if I cannot achieve it inside me (33).
Note: The detail of “putting out birdseed” emerges as unusual and specific in this list of tasks. Readers of May Sarton will recognize it as characteristic of her.
b. Framing details plus a dash of vagueness.
-Neil Young in Waging Heavy Peace: Crosby had recently gotten straight, was recovering from his addiction to freebase, had just completed jail time he got for something having to do with a loaded weapon in Texas, and was still prone to taking naps between takes (3).
Note: Adding details to just one of the clauses brings this sentence to life. The details plus the spot of vagueness cause our minds to go to work imagining what might have happened in Texas.
2. Add unusual repetition.
a. Different forms of the same word.
-Anne Enright in The Gathering: I close my eyes against the warm sunlight and doze beside the dozing stranger on the Brighton train (55).
Note: Enright repeats doze in the adjective form of dozing.
-Pam Houston in Contents May Have Shifted: Henry is the only man I’ve ever known in my life that I knew how to love well, and as luck would have it, we were never lovers (6).
Note: Houston repeats love in the noun form of lovers. And notice the rhythm of the sentence.
b. The same word as different parts of speech.
-Anne Enright in The Gathering: I was back to school runs and hovering and ringing other-mothers for other-mother things, like play dates, and where to buy Rebecca’s Irish dancing shoes (133).
Note: Enright uses other-mother both as a noun and as an adjective, where it supplies a frame for the vagueness of things, which she then frames even more by using examples.
3. Incorporate a character’s voice.
-David Foster Wallace in “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” from Consider the Lobster and Other Essays: People keep asking Mrs. T’s permission until she tells them to knock it off and for heaven’s sake just use the phone already (138).
4. Add a surprising or unusual perspective.
-Anne Enright in The Gathering: The Hegartys didn’t start kissing until the late eighties and even then we stuck to Christmas (53).
Note: Enright enlarges the time frame: instead of referencing an event, she references an entire decade.
5. Use sentence fragments.
-Brian Doyle in “Joyas Voladoras” from The Best American Essays 2005: So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment (30).
-Thomas Merton in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander: How the valley awakes (117).
-Cheryl Strayed in Wild: Planet Heroin (53).
6. Use compression—combine sentences to create density.
–Pam Houston in Contents May Have Shifted: We were each locked inside our individual sorrows, didn’t know each other well enough to share, but we agreed, out loud, that like moose, pelicans were surely put on earth to act as suicide preventers, agreed we’d never kill ourselves within the sight of one (8).
Note: Multiple could-have-been-single sentences are contained in one sentence; notice how the compression creates a lovely rhythm.
7. Delete a sentence.
-From my novel-in-progress:
Original: Angelina went straight from Lucy’s to the gym. In the face of matching clothes, mirrors, strutting, she could feel her body regressing—curling in instead of opening out—and she reminded herself to breathe.
Improved: But at the gym, in the face of matching clothes, mirrors, strutting, Angelina could feel her body regressing—curling in instead of opening out—and she reminded herself to breathe.
Note: In this example, accompanying the reader from here to there is unnecessary.
When revising, find a way to see each sentence in its own right. Focus on only one page a day, or print your manuscript with each sentence on its own line. Or deposit single pages of your manuscript around your living space (kitchen sink, bathroom, by the back door, on top of the washing machine), so you discover and read each one at random. Try reading your work aloud; you might be able to hear a clunky sentence. For a trick Pam Houston used to vet sentences in her book Contents May Have Shifted, take a look at her craft short in Hunger Mountain.
Henceforth I will address each of my sentences like a language crank—whether I’m revising a novel, a short story, or a craft essay—for I now have not only a bar to reach for, but also a bar not to fall beneath.
[i] For purposes of this essay, I’m assuming that awkward, confusing, or repetitious sentences have already been weeded out of our manuscripts.
[ii] Some sentences acquire their heft or beauty from the surrounding sentences, but that subject—good paragraphs—is a different essay.
Cynthia Newberry Martin’s writing has appeared in Gargoyle, Contrary and Storyglossia, and will appear in The Best of Clapboard House, among other places. Her first two novels placed in the 2010 Faulkner-Wisdom writing competition – one on the Shortlist for Finalists. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and she is The Writing Life Editor for Hunger Mountain. When she has time, she blogs at Catching Days, which hosts the “How We Spend Our Days” series for writers. She was recently awarded a residency by the Ragdale Foundation, where she completed her new novel, Love Like This.