20Feb

How To Write The Perfect Sentence

I’m skeptical of writing advice at the best of times, but this boffin in the New Statesmen thinks he knows how to write the perfect sentence.

Look around the room you’re sitting in. Pick out four items at random. I’m doing it now and my items are a desk, a television, a door and a pencil. Now, make the words you have chosen into a sentence using as few additional words as possible. For example: “I was sitting at my desk, looking at the television, when a pencil fell off and rolled to the door.” Or: “The television close to the door obscured my view of the desk and the pencil I needed.” Or: “The pencil on my desk was pointed towards the door and away from the television.” You will find that you can always do this exercise – and you could do it for ever.

That’s the easy part. The hard part is to answer this question: what did you just do? How were you able to turn a random list into a sentence? It might take you a little while but, in time, you will figure it out and say something like this: “I put the relationships in.” That is to say, you arranged the words so that they were linked up to the others by relationships of cause, effect, contiguity, similarity, subordination, place, manner and so on (but not too far on; the relationships are finite). Once you have managed this – and you do it all the time in speech, effortlessly and unselfconsciously – hitherto discrete items participate in the making of a little world in which actors, actions and the objects of actions interact in ways that are precisely represented.

He’s plugging a book, kids, so keep that in mind when you read the rest.

As a tangent, not quite to do with this, I always found it a fascinating exercise – back in the day – to copy out what my favourite writers did. I’d flip open one of their books, then simply type out a page of their prose onto the computer. I hoped I could get the gist of what these authors were thinking whenever they formed a paragraph of description – and there was a lot of joy in that process. It was almost the opposite of speed-reading a paragraph. It’s also interesting when you compare writers, such as Hemingway or DeLillo, to see how vastly different they can be. You might not find the perfect sentence, but you will find that, ultimately, that there is no one way to write.

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

10 comments

  1. One of the best ways to get the different ways in which writers construct their sentences and their worlds is by translating them. Interestingly enough, many authors don’t remain enjoyable after translation (at least for me), while others become even more awesome once I work them.

  2. Translating what has been written can sometimes take the fun out of things… just like poetry.

    As for that ‘boffin’ – I find him a bit too derogatory for my liking, and I can see some little bloke in my head parked behind a desk with an ego that is too big for his cubicle.

    Perfect sentences do not exist as people have different concepts of what is perfect and what isn’t. Do you agree?

  3. Milena – yes, I bet that is a fascinating process – which languages do you work with?

    Andy – to a large extent, yes. Though I like to think there are wonderful examples in all sorts of genres of syntax.

  4. Oh most definitely Mark. There are things that require a certain level of appreciation to be fully understood

  5. Supposedly Hemingway did that very thing, copying paragraphs of Balzac. It’s a great exercise to take, say, Melville, Faulkner, Hemingway, and place them side by side and see how differently they constructed sentences for various effect. How many times have I lost the referent when reading a Henry James sentence?!

  6. Well, I work with English and French, mostly, although I’ve translated some stuff from Italian and Spanish, too, and some smaller languages such as Slovenian and Macedonian.

    Douglas Adams was a lot of work, for instance, but he was great fun, as was Terry Pratchett. With humour, I sometimes have to come up with completely different interpretations in order to retain both the meaning of the text and (at least some of) the word play. And early Moorcock was very educational: how to stuff so much force in so few words, while both retaining and redefining the classic sword&sorcery imagery.

    In French, I have the most fun with Boris Vian, who has been one of my favourite writers since high school.

  7. Not “Begin with a capital, end with a fullstop.” then?

  8. Sonny – I think I might have known that about Hemingway. During my mildly obsessed Hemingway period, I might have read about it. I’m sure that’s where I picked it up!

    Milena – humour must be incredibly difficult to translate, yes. Sounds like you’ve worked on some important books!

    Matt – heh, apparently not…

  9. The writer of the New Statesmen article seems to overthink the issue. A sentence should communicate essential information in a concise way, and the preceding text should have some influence on its length and structure. Instead of micromanaging sentences for “perfection”, I’d just focus on content, style, and grammar.

  10. Hi Philip, thanks for stopping by. And indeed, I very much agree.