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.