Reading Like a Writer:

At the Sentence Level

Most of us have heard the adage, “It’s not what you say but how you say it!” What we say is important, of course, but so is the tone, manner and style that we employ, whether our communication is oral or written. When we consider our sentences, another old saying comes to mind: “Clothes make the man” (Erasmus, vestis virum facit ). However plain-spoken or grandiloquent we may be, our style of communication conveys a meaning along with the official message. 

In Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose, an American novelist, columnist and writing teacher, encourages potential writers to learn “by reading the work of their predecessors” (3). I echo that advice, including learning to write more effectively at the sentence level. Most manuals and guidebooks, Ms. Prose notes, tell one how not to write. Literature and other published writing provide us with a more “positive model” (44). 

I recommend taking three or four books you have enjoyed reading and studying them, books that have impressed you not only by what they say but how they say it, books whose style fit your ideal practice or a new manner in which you would like to express yourself. Will you aim for a plain-dressed Quaker of a sentence or one risqué in its scanty adornments? Only you can decide, but it helps to know your stylistic options ,and those you can learn from writers who are successfully published and well respected.

Consider these three examples, each drawn from a writer popular early in the 20th century:

  • Ernest Hemingway: final words in The Old Man and The Sea

“Up the road, in his shack, the old man was sleeping again. He was still sleeping on his face and the boy was sitting by him watching him. The old man was dreaming about the lions.”

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald: final words in The Great Gatsby

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning—-

   So we beat on, boats agains the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

  • Thomas Wolfe: final words in Look Homeward, Angel

“And the angels on Gant’s porch were frozen in hard marble silence, and at a distance life awoke, and there was a rattle of lean wheels, a slow clangor of shod hoofs. And he heard the whistle wail along the river.

  Yet, as he stood there for the last time by the angels of his father’s porch, it seemed as if the Square already were far and lost; or, I should say, he was like a man who stands upon a hill above the town he has left, yet does not say ‘The town is near.’ but turns his eyes upon the distant soaring ranges.”

 All three writers—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Wolfe—were deemed to be successful, commercially and critically, and they were each “discovered” and edited by Maxwell Perkins at Charles Scribners & Sons. Yet their styles are unique and distinctive. Hemingway’s writing is variously described as “spare,” “direct,” “unadorned,” and “uncomplicated,” shaped by his four years of work as a reporter for the Toronto Star. The journalistic influence played its part, with its emphasis on strong nouns and verbs and a minimum of descriptive adjectives and adverbs. Yet in Hemingway’s later stories even the “Simple” sentences are not simple; they are more like the tip of an iceberg with its real bulk hidden in the depths.

Fitzgerald, though he was a close friend of Hemingway, wrote very differently. As the above example shows, many of his sentences are metaphoric and imagistic, reflecting an elegiac romanticism. The sentences in Thomas Wolfe’s novels and stories are even more lyrical and romantic than in Fitzgerald’s. Emotionally charged and highly evocative, Wolfe’s sentences at times teeter on the brink of “purple prose,” an overly ornate style that is garish instead of elegant. 

With the many books now available to us, we have the opportunity to learn not just from a handful of writers, such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Wolfe. We can select from hundreds of writers, modern and ancient, studying their sentences and combinations of sentences to discern how they express conviction and achieve clarity using such elements as structure, tone, register, rhythm, cadence, assonance and alliteration.

As you read like a writer, at the sentence level, may you enjoy your exploration of creative world of sentences and may your own sentencing abilities grow in the process.

Sentencing without Offence

Four Basic Sentence Structures

Reading Like a Writer: At the Sentence Level

Considerations for Sentence Variety