Friday, May 16, 2014

When Good People Write Bad Sentences, by Robert Harris

All great writing starts with a sentence. But what is it that makes a sentence great?  Could it be grammar, syntax, style, word choice, information, meaning, common sense, passion etc? According to one author, there is only one rule for writing a great sentence. And this is the rule:  "whether you're Christian, Jew, Muslim, or a disciple of the church of Penn Jillette, when you sit down to write, the Reader is thy god." The rule is certainly thought-provoking but one has to wonder if one rule would be enough for writing a great sentence.

Robert Harris, in his book, "When Good People Write Bad Sentences," offers "12 Steps to Verbal Enlightenment" that can cure any eager to learn "bad writing addict." Besides, the 12 steps don’t just provide solutions to well-known problems in the categories of punctuation, syntax, diction, and style but also help bad writers understand the emotional foundations and psychological forces behind those problems. Harris argues, not without humor, that only with this deep understanding can permanent changes take place. He identifies nine types of ineffective sentences that arise from unexamined emotions and self-destructive needs, and offers an integrated approach which could help writers learn to take a broader and healthier perspective on sentence construction.

When it comes to the malady of writing badly, which he calls "malescribism,"--an uncontrollable urge to write carelessly and unpersuasively--Harris warns that this malady "is no respecter of status, nor does it take into account social, ethnic, or religious orientation." He also notes that malescribes could be black and white, male and female, believer and nonbeliever, liberal and conservative.

Since we all would like to write better sentences consistently, let's look at the advice offered by Robert Harris, and also share some of the great sentences that we have come across in our reading.



Anonymous said...

One of my favorite sentences is from Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dolloway:

“For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most deject of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason; they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and jingle and strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.”

Anonymous said...

Charles Dickens in his A Tale of Two Cities wrote a masterly sentence:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Anonymous said...

The Autumn of the Patriarch has this sentence by Gabriel García Márquez, which is equally elegant:

“She said I’m tired of begging God to overthrow my son, because all this business of living in the presidential palace is like having the lights on all the time, sir, and she had said it with the same naturalness with which on one national holiday she had made her way through the guard of honor with a basket of empty bottles and reached the presidential limousine that was leading the parade of celebration in an uproar of ovations and martial music and storms of flowers and she shoved the basket through the window and shouted to her son that since you’ll be passing right by take advantage and return these bottles to the store on the corner, poor mother.”

Anonymous said...

Good sentences do not need to be long to be good. Here is one that I like from Truman Capote, in ”In Cold Blood”:

"Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there."