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.