by Andrew Klein
“Read this sentence carefully. Does it sound right? Does it feel right? Do the words actually say what you think they say? Could you have said the same thing more clearly and concisely?” I find myself writing these sorts of comments on student essays more and more these days—and not because the sentences are inaccurate or even grammatically incorrect. I do it because I’ve come to believe that a large part of our thinking happens within language, at the level of the sentence; and that even the best ideas can perish under the weight of poor prose.
In his 2012 book Several Short Sentences About Writing, the author and New York Times editorial board member Verlyn Klinkenborg put it like this:
Here, in short, is what I want to tell you.
Know what each sentence says,
What it doesn’t say,
And what it implies.
Of these, the hardest is knowing what each sentence actually says.
This might sound obvious, but it’s easy to forget. In my own writing, for instance, there have been countless times when I’ve been absolutely certain that I’ve said something clearly only to find out that readers are confused by it. Sometimes this is because the structure of my sentences made it difficult for them to understand the idea and sometimes it’s because I used the first words to come to mind rather than the best words. In either case, though, the problem is that I knew what I wanted the sentences to say, but not what they actually said.
Similarly, when I meet with students to discuss revisions and ask what they mean by a particularly confusing sentence, I often hear a crystal clear explanation—to which I respond, “Well, why didn’t you write that?” Students will frequently say that they thought they had written that. But, when they start looking at the sentence itself, the discrepancy becomes apparent: they knew what they wanted the sentence to say, but not what it actually said. It’s sometimes just a misplaced comma or adverb, but even the “small” things can muddle your message.
One way to improve your sentences—and a good one at that—is to simply write more; for, as you write more, you’ll develop a greater facility with language and get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. But writing alone is not enough. You also need to read a lot—and to read like a writer. That is, you need to find sentences you like and study them. What makes them work? How do they do what they do? How can you incorporate what you like into your own writing style? And finally, let’s not forget about time; for, as Rice University English Professor Terry Doody likes to say, “Nothing improves your prose like spending more time on it. Nothing.”
Take your time with sentences as you write them and spend even more time with them when you go back to edit and revise. Notice their rhythm, their shape, their structure, their texture—and, crucially, what they actually say.