A first look at Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon might make you think that it’s as dry as an organic chemistry manual, and in some ways you would be right. This book of sentence building, sentence making, sentence improving is simultaneously a taxonomy and textbook of the humble sentence. And if that seems like an off-putting combination, it sometimes is—but that doesn’t make it any less valuable.
The special case that Building Great Sentences pleads runs counter to much of the advice about writing one finds in many modern manuals—or at least the advice I’ve been reading. These books revel in the celebration of Hemingway-like simplicity, the ruthless eradication of the extraneous word, the superfluous modifier, the unnecessary adjective and adverb—prune them, sentence surgeon!—and let the verbs and nouns do the brunt of your heavy lifting. Indeed, when I first took that simplification advice to heart, I believe that it improved my writing immensely. So what to do with a book that takes precisely the opposite tack: a book that tells you that good writing is about complicating things, about moving the basic clause forwards and backwards, about explaining, about explaining again in more detail, about adding modifying phrase on top of modifying phrase, about culminating in some final periodic unforeseen conclusion, or, finally, to allow for the scope of thought to find its way, to take pleasure in the very movement of thought, as in this moment, this sentence?
Yes, this was new to me.
And yet reading through the book’s example sentences, sentences that I wanted to rail out against, argue against, defend against, even as I had to admit their power, because what, I screamed to myself, could a sentence possibly mean outside of the context of a paragraph, a page, a story, a novel? How could you devote a whole book to the sentence? The particularity of words I understand. But sentences? The whole project was foreign to me.
It reads like this: anaphora, epistrophe (at last, I knew where that Thelonious Monk tune got its name!), polysyndeton; if this was the stuff of writing then perhaps I should be studying Linnaeus.
Taxonomy is not necessarily a bad thing. Taxonomy, naming things, allows one to see better, more, differently: a bird’s call is heard because that was a Northern Cardinal; sounds that were unheard are heard; the seed-eating bill is not the insect-eating bill; beaks I had never thought to look at before, beaks I had never seen before, sentence structures I had never seen before, I now see.
There’s a ton of interesting, useful information here. I especially liked the section that talked about binary structures and serial structures. We all have a rhythmic sense of these things if we do any of it at all, but the explicit statement of forms here is eye-opening. Landon quotes Winston Weather’s theory of the rhetorical effects of serial constructions: the balanced binary form speaks of authority and expertise—“on the one hand, on the other”—it’s a commanding structure. A triple series, however, “has connotations of the reasonable, the believable, and even the logical.” But the four-part series rhythm is indicative of “the human, emotional, diffuse, and inexplicable.”
Writing is, in a sense, looking through one side of the telescope and building things up by accretion, one little thing on top of another little thing. This book is an excellent guide to the accumulation of such effects. Like most advice of this kind, it has to be absorbed, forgotten, and made to dwell wherever such knowledge lives unconsciously and automatically. Otherwise, like the centipede who tried to verbalize his process of walking, there is the danger of getting entangled in explanations and losing the ability of taking action.