Building Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read (Great Courses) Paperback – 21 Aug 2013
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About the Author
Dr. Brooks Landon is Herman J. and Eileen S. Schmidt Professor of English and Collegiate Fellow at The University of Iowa and Director of the University's General Education Literature Program. He lives in Iowa.
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Top Customer Reviews
The book explores and shows the merits of 'cumulative' sentences, where units of information are added to enrichen the prose. For his examples, Prof Landon draws on a range of sentences by some very fine authors, including William Falkner, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, Dom DeLillo. The chapters discussing sentence pattern and rhythm and aural flow are most enlightening, covering areas that many books on writing gloss over.
The book's projected readership very much is graduates, and it does help grasping what Prof Landon says if you have previously studied English at university (the author has shaped this from a degree level unit in Creative Writing he teaches). This does not mean the book is difficult and "academic". While it avoids that gossipy conversational form of many American-style writing manuals, the book is written with great clarity, the author being careful to explain sometimes complex material in direct comprehensible terms.
-- Begs to be read in conjunction with Verlyn Klinkenborg's Several Short Sentences about Writing and, especially, Mark Forsyth's The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Reviewed by C. J. Singh (Berkeley, CA)
The title of this book can be misleading: the book focuses mainly on crafting sentences for story-telling, not general nonfiction that typically favors concision.
Brooks Landon is a professor in the University of Iowa's highly acclaimed Creative Writing Program, where he specializes in teaching the "Prose Style" course. In 2008, "The Teaching Company" produced a DVD showing Landon deliver twenty-four lectures on "Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer's Craft." With the DVD comes an option to purchase a complete transcript and study guide, comprising 420 pages. I enjoyed watching the DVD. After studying the transcript, I recommended both to fellow apprentice writers in my MFA program in Creative Writing. The transcript, in a lightly edited and condensed version, constitutes this book.
In the first chapter, Landon writes: "The most important assumption underlying this book is that the same words in different order have different meanings, or to put this another way, style is content... form is content" (page 9). In the opening chapters, he cites several prominent style theorists like Josephine Miles and Francis Christensen.
Josephine Miles in STYLE and PROPORTION: The LANGUAGE of PROSE and POETRY published in 1967, wrote: "Prose proceeds forward in time by steps less closely measured, but not less propelling, than the steps of verse. While every few feet, verse reverses, repeats, and reassesses the pattern of its progression, prose picks up momentum toward its forward goal in strides variably adapted to its burden and purposes. Both use steps; neither merely flows; each may be perceived and followed by its own stages of articulation." (p 46). Landon notes that Miles was the first woman to achieve tenure in the English department at the University of California, Berkeley.
Francis Christensen in his book, NOTES TOWARD A NEW RHETORIC: ESSAYS FOR TEACHERS, also published in 1967, introduced the term "cumulative sentence." Landon declares that "the structure of cumulative sentences, the syntax is at the very heart of my approach to teaching writing" (p 53).
Christensen cites a 1946 essay by John Erskine, a Columbia University professor of literature, as the inspiration of his theory of the cumulative sentence. Erskine wrote: "When you write, you make a point not by subtracting as though you sharpened a pencil, but by adding.... What you wish to say is found not in the noun but in what you add to qualify the noun. The noun is only the grappling iron to hitch your mind to the reader's. The noun, the verb, and the main clause serve as a base on which meaning will rise. The modifier is the essential part of any sentence." Landon notes Erskine's taking a "wonderfully sly swipe at those writing gurus who put all their weight behind omitting all modifiers and confining themselves to nouns, pronouns, and verbs... tombstones give us our best examples of the `omit needless words' style" (p 58). No doubt, Christensen and, later, Landon read this "swipe" with considerable delight. ["Omit needless words" comes from Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style." Richard Lanham, in his widely read book REVISING PROSE, urges as a paramedic mantra to follow: "Who Kicks Who." Both suggestions can be very effective for editing bureaucratic and business prose.] (See my detailed review of Lanham's book on amazon.
Christensen describes the cumulative sentence structure: "With the main clause stated, the forward movement of the sentence stops, the reader shifts down to a lower level of generality or abstraction or to singular terms, and goes back over the same ground at this lower level." In a cumulative sentence, the base clause comes at the beginning and is followed by one or a series of modifying phrases. In traditional college handbooks, like Harbrace, such sentences are called by the pejorative term "loose" sentences, in contrast to the handbook's privileged "periodic" sentences that place subordinate clause at the beginning.
Landon presents many examples of cumulative sentences. Examples:
"A lamp was burning on the table, flickering slightly, casting a dim light on the shabby room, leaving the corners dark, providing no comfort to the lonesome inhabitant of the shelter, promising him nothing." Here, the base clause is followed by five modifying phrases, separated by a comma, each modifying the base clause. This pattern of modifying exemplifies a coordinate cumulative sentence. A subordinate cumulative sentence is exemplified in the following sentence: "A lamp was burning on the table, flickering slightly, the flicker animating a dance of shadows on the wall" (p 61). Here, the second modifying phrase modifies the subject in the first modifying phrase "flickering," not the subject "lamp" in the base clause.
Landon explains Christensen's four principles for cumulative sentences with admirable clarity: adding modifying phrases as a process of composition; giving direction by modification; downshifting through increasingly detailed specificity; adding texture to the main clause. Among the illustrative sentences in Christensen's book, and cited by Landon, here's one, by Sinclair Lewis: "He dipped his hands in the bichloride solution and shook them, a quick shake, fingers down, like the fingers of a pianist above the keys" (p 88).
Here's an example of an expository cumulative sentence by Landon: "Cumulative sentences can take any number of forms, detailing both frozen or static scenes and moving processes, their insistent rhythm always asking for another modifying phrase, allowing us to achieve ever-greater degrees of specificity and precision, a process of focusing the sentence in much the same way a movie camera can focus and refocus on a scene, zooming in for a close-up to reveal almost microscopic detail, panning back to offer a wide-angle panorama, offering new angles or perspectives from which to examine a scene or consider an idea" (p.91) Here, the first two modifying phrases are coordinate, the third modifying phrases is subordinate to the preceding; the fourth is subordinate to the third; the last three modifying phrases are subordinate to the fourth and coordinate with each other. Indenting differently the modifying phases as coordinate and subordinate, as shown in the book, makes it easier to understand.
When we place the base clause in the middle of a cumulative sentence, we have left-branch and right-bran modifying phrases. When we interrupt the base clause itself by modifying phrases, the sentence can still retain its cumulative character. When we place the base clause at the end of a cumulative we have a suspensive sentence. The book is replete with examples of great sentences from classic writers like Hemingway, Woolf, Steinbeck, and contemporaries like Pynchon, Oates, and DeLillo.
Granted, Christensen's book has become a classic among teachers and advanced students of fiction-writing; however, Landon's calling him "Father of the Cumulative Sentence" (p 55) is a bit much. Landon knows from his citations of sentences by F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, that the two, among many others (including Ernst Hemingway), were writing cumulative sentences long before Christensen's book.
Landon has added an index to the transcript and retained the exercises at the end of each lecture. I expected the book to be more tightly edited than the transcript of his lectures. On the other hand, retaining the redundancies of his classroom lecture format makes it more of a university course.
This book is truly a master class in crafting sentences for narratives and calls for diligent study. Five shining stars.
-- C. J. Singh
What it is: Building Great Sentences is simply fantastic. It is laser focused on just sentence structure, beautiful sentence structure, sentence structure that makes you swoon. You'll learn ways to make big, beautiful sentences, loose sentences, balanced sentences. You'll also learn a variety of tools for adding your detail to short sentences, gaining the ability to vary the way you construct almost all of your sentences. Best of all, Brooks Landon is really funny, and the course is a pure delight to listen to. I've listened to it many times and I enjoy it every time.
What it is not: I've seen this course criticized for advocating for long and complex sentences, which isn't really true. It is true that it only deals with making sentences longer and better while being long, and it is true that if you craft all or even most of your sentences to be such masterworks, you'll be writing insufferable prose, but that's not what the lecture is advocating. Landon mentions several times that the writer absolutely must vary their sentence length, that the course is focused on longer sentences because short sentences are really not all that difficult to craft (or all that teachable), and that it is important to know how to create longer, well constructed sentences when desired. This course is simply focussed on that one single aspect, a specialized tool. The course teaches you how to build those beautiful loose, balanced, or otherwise complex sentences when you want to. The course doesn't deal at all with any of the other important aspects of writing (story, characterization, pacing, etc), only how to build great sentences (when you want to).
I found this lecture series to have terrifically improved my ability to craft sentences of all variety and type. I don't often use these new tools in my toolbox to craft complex sentences, but when I want to, I know how to do them, and I'm a better writer for it. Also, many of the techniques learned are well suited to creating variety among your shorter sentences (the multitude of examples of different ways to add just one piece of detail to "the woman closed the door" are wonderfully illuminating).
TL;DR: This will make you a better wordsmith. This is an incredible tool for improving one small, but important aspect of your writing, building more complex sentences, which, when used sparingly, can add incredible richness to your writing. It will also teach you how to vary your writing, showing you the multitude of ways to add detail to your short sentences. I can't recommend it strongly enough.
This book went against most of what I have been taught as a student, which was to pare sentences down to what was essential information, not to build them up through adding more clauses. I found myself fighting Dr. Landon throughout this entire book, due to my own schooling, even as I thought he was making some good points along the way. It says something about the power of my own education that I could barely take in Dr. Landon's points, at odds as they were against what I have been taught. The arguments he makes for longer sentences I can take or leave. I prefer short, to-the-point sentences, and longer sentences don't much interest me. His arguments on style I found more interesting and to the point. It is rare to find a good stylist, the breed seems to be an endangered species these days, and we really could use more self-conscious love of language in modern writing. So on this point I am firmly in Dr. Landon's camp.
I didn't do the writing exercises in this book, I simply read it and enjoyed the arguments and found myself weighing in on them as I read. If you're a writer who is aware of language and grammar and syntax, this book should get you thinking. I found Dr. Landon's use of obscure grammatical technical terms to be slightly offputting, but I just plowed through them and got on with the reading, and I believe I picked up most of what was most relevant in his text. I could have used more examples of what Dr. Landon felt "style" consists of, but what was here was sufficient to make his points. This book is a valuable read for writers of all stripes.