First You Write a Sentence

"First You Write a Sentence. The Elements of Reading, Writing ... and Life," by Joe Moran. Penguin

FIRST YOU WRITE A SENTENCE: The Elements of Reading, Writing ... and Life. By Joe Moran. Penguin. 228 pages. $16.

Exalting the sentence as the DNA of language, Joe Moran champions a set of rules that is less inviolate dicta than comradely guidelines.

Moran's is not simply a treatise on writing well, but on seeing well. For writing is not only a way of communicating, but of thinking.

A professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University, Moran draws his title from a work by Lewis Carroll, but there is nothing fanciful about this densely furnished “style guide by stealth.”

The sentence is a “small, sealed vessel for holding meaning,” its own “island of sense,” he writes, and we admire a well-crafted sentence “because it breathes and moves like a living thing ... it is alert and open to the world.”

But writing is rewriting. And rewriting. And rewriting some more.

Moran's audience is not the casual reader. The book is peppered with more than a few arcane grammatical terms, suffers spasms of the pedantic and has a tenor only an English major could love. But “First You Write” will be useful for anyone determined that their own writing show some sizzle, and not just by cutting out the fat.

For those who loathed English class but became writers anyway, reading Moran can feel like a slap on the wrist, mainly because the man is almost always right.

Writing, he says, exists not to be wasted on the air like speech, but to be committed to permanence. “A sentence should warrant its arrival into the world” but should not “advertise the labor that went into its making. So don't make the reader do your work for you. Or, at least, don't ask them to do the heavy lifting. A sentence should be a labor to write, not to read.”

Moran's book does have the virtue of showing rather than telling, and his philosophy of prose writing leans toward the artisanal, not least to the rhythms of poetry. He champions the plain style, but also demonstrates the power of a more elaborate sentence.

“The plain style's power rests on this tension between the ease of its phrasing — oft saying things far from plain — and the shock of its thought slid cleanly into the mind.” But long sentences have their value. “They can be more concise than a string of simple ones because having a subject and main verb for each thought wastes words.”

Sentences come alive from word order, not strained effect. The hardest trick a writer can pull off is to be clear without being glib or dull, he says. And Moran insists that writing that sidesteps the senses by overuse of abstract nouns is dull. Worse, it can sound excessively sentimental and sanctimonious. Enter that wonderful corrective, the metaphor.

Skilled writers fit words together in a way that “suggests a veracity and acuity they may themselves be far from possessing. Great sentences can make good writers sound wiser than they are.”

Which is why he counsels writers to “search for the truth inside your sentences, not outside of them. You have to give up all your pet ideas and idle prejudices and let the sentence tell you what you need not mean to say and may not wish to hear.”

Moreover, sentences need elasticity. “They must be open to dispute by a truth the writer does not own and the reader might see differently.”

Moran makes liberal uses of pithy quotes on writing from the likes of Thomas Merton, Simone Weill and Wendell Berry, but the perspectives are his own.

Curiously, the matter of talent doesn't enter the picture, though it is implied. Not everyone has the gifts that great writing requires, and there is that fatal flaw of having a tin ear. But we can all make our writing better. In that respect, Moran is an able guide.

He reminds us that the right word is only the right word when it resides in the right place.

Reviewer Bill Thompson is a writer and editor based in Charleston.

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