Several Short Sentences About Writing

By: Verlyn Klinkenborg - Read: July 29, 2023 - Rating: 10/10

This is the most insightful book on writing I've read. The author's philosophy is simple: the sentence is the fundamental unit of writing. If you focus on making each sentence great, your writing will be great.

He gives practical tips on how to improve your sentences by eliminating non-essential words and he shares his method for sentence creation.

Beyond the quality of the author's writing philosophy, the book is written with a level of intention and concision I didn't know was possible.

The value density of this book is what all books should aspire to be (and only the best books can compete, like Zero to One).

My Notes

One by one, each sentence takes the stage. It says the very thing it comes into existence to say. Then it leaves the stage.

It doesn’t help the next one up or the previous one down.

It doesn’t wave to its friends in the audience.

Or pause to be acknowledged or applauded. It doesn’t talk about what it’s saying.

It simply says its piece and leaves the stage.

The only link between you and the reader is the sentence you’re making.

You can’t revise or discard what you don’t consciously recognize.

Everything you know about the world falls into one of the following categories:

  1. What you’ve been taught.
  2. What you assume is true because you’ve heard it repeated by others.
  3. What you feel, no matter how subtle.
  4. What you don’t know.
  5. What you learn from your own experience.

You don’t have to write short sentences forever - only until you find a compelling reason for a clear and direct long sentence.

Most sentences need no preamble or postlude.

To make sentences short, remove every unnecessary word.

Every word is optional until it proves to be essential.

Writing my implication should be one of your goals. The ability to suggest more than the world seem to allow, the ability to speak to the reader in silence.

Most of the sentences you make will need to be killed. The rest will need to be fixed. This will be true for a long time.

Shape, form, structure, genre, the whole—these have a way of clarifying themselves when sentences become clear.

Once you can actually see your thoughts and perceptions,

It’s surprising how easy it is to arrange them or discover their arrangement.

You’re two people - a writer and a reader. You can only become a better writer by becoming a better reader.

We were taught in school that a sentence is a husk of an idea, valuable only for what it transmits or contains, not for what it is.

What if you value every one of a sentence’s attributes and not merely its meaning?

The purpose of a sentence is to say what it has to say but also to be itself,

Not merely a substrate for the extraction of meaning.

A reader is likelier to get lost cutting his way through the jungle of transitions than crossing the gap of a well-made ellipsis.

The obsession with transition negates a basic truth about writing,

A magical truth.

You can get anywhere from anywhere,

Always and almost instantly.

The gap between sentences is sometimes a pause for breath

And sometimes an echoing void.

And if you can get anywhere from anywhere,

You can start anywhere

And end anywhere.

There is no single necessary order.

If you love to read—as surely you must—you love being wherever you find yourself in the book you’re reading,

Happy to be in the presence of every sentence as it passes by,

Not biding your time until the meaning comes along.

Good writing is significant everywhere, delightful everywhere.

Pay attention to what you notice in a piece of writing.

So what is noticing?

A pinpoint of awareness,

The detail that stands out amid all the details.

It’s catching your sleeve on the thorn of the thing you notice

And paying attention as you free yourself.

What you notice has no meaning.

Be sure to assign it none.

It doesn’t represent or symbolize

Or belong to some world theory or allegory of perception.

Don’t put words to it.

And don’t collect it. Let it slip away.

Be patient for the next thing you notice.

Everything you see and know about your presence through perception is overlaid by a parallel habitat of language.

Metaphor, like any rhetorical device, is more effective the less you use it.

One of the hardest things about learning to read well is learning to believe that every sentence has been consciously, purposely shaped by the writer.

This is only credible in the presence of excellent writing.

A cliche isn’t just a familiar, overused saying. It’s the debris of someone else’s thinking.

When the work is really complete, the writer knows how each sentence got that way,

What choices were made.

You become not only a living concordance of your work, able to say where almost any word appears.

You also carry within you the memory of all the decisions you made while shaping your prose.

Try reading your work aloud.

The ear is much smarter than the eye.

One way to make your prose look less familiar:

Turn every sentence into its own paragraph.

What happens?

A sudden, graphic display of the length of your sentences

And, better yet, their relative length—how it varies, or doesn’t vary, from one to the next.

Variation is the life of prose, in length and in structure.

The point of learning the fundamental language of grammar and syntax

Isn’t correctness or obeying the rules.

It’s keeping the rules from obtruding themselves upon the reader

Because you’ve ignored them.

Every reader is always two readers.

One reads with a deep, intuitive feel for the way language works

And yet with overwhelming literalness.

The other reader—literate, curious, adaptable, intelligent, open-minded—

Will follow you anywhere you want to go

As long as your prose is clear.

Flow is something the reader experiences, not the writer. The reader’s experience of your prose has nothing to do with how easy or hard it was to make.

It’s always worth asking yourself if you can imagine saying a sentence

And adjusting it until you can.

Write to your most understanding reader. You’re writing to someone who knows you, who understands your allusions,

Your patterns of speech, who’s quick and empathetic

In reading your thoughts and feelings, whether they’re spoken or unspoken.

What makes this reader valuable is a sense of connection and kinship,

An intuitive grasp of what you say and don’t say.

“Inspiration” is what gets you to the keyboard,

And that’s where it leaves you.

We hate the thought of being manipulated, and yet reading means surrendering to the manipulations of the author’s prose.

Style is an expression of the interest you take in the making of every sentence.

The process of revision is a search for the sentence that says the thing you had no idea you could say hidden inside the sentence you’re making.

Thought and sentence are always a collaboration,

The sum of what can be said and what you’re trying to say.

You’re more likely to find the right path—

The interesting path through your subject and thoughts—

In a sentence-by-sentence search than in an outline.

Don’t make an outline. Instead read and take lots of notes. Then think, and think again. Be patient. Formulate thoughts in your head, notice them. Don’t distinguish between thinking and making sentences. Pretend they’re the same thing.

Resist the temptation to start organizing and structuring your thoughts too soon,

Boxing them in, forcing them into genre-sized containers.

Postpone the search for order, for the single line through the piece.

Let your thoughts overlap and collide and see what they dislodge.

Get used to discarding sentences.

You’re holding an audition.

Many sentences will try out.

One gets the part.

You’ll recognize it less from the character of the sentence itself than from the promise it contains—promise for the sentences to come.

The reader doesn’t need grabbing.

She needs to feel your interest in the sentence you’ve chosen to make.

Nothing more.

What make’s the first sentence interesting is its exact shape and what it says and the possibility it creates for another sentence.

Always remember to work from the samll-scale — the scale of the setnence — upward.

Resist chronology and the chronology of observation.

Many people are afraid to say things without the support of some authority. What if the reader felt your authority and thought about quoting you?

All the authority a writer ever possesses is the authority the reader grants him.

Yet the reader grants it in response to her sense of the writer’s authority.

The only sure test of your ideas is whether they interest you

And arouse your own expectations—

The capacity for surprise that you discover as you work.

One purpose of writing—its central purpose—is to offer your testimony

About the character of existence at this moment.

The ordinary reader—the ordinary audience—is a barren conceit.

It guarantees a shared mediocrity.

Don’t preconceive the reader’s limitations.

They’ll become your own.

To write well, it isn’t enough for you to read differently.

Imagine the reader reading differently too,

Alive to the movement of language

And the qualities of writing that depend

On an unspoken understanding between writer and reader:

Wit, irony, inference, and implication.

Imagine a reader you can trust.

Revise toward brevity—remove words instead of adding them.

Toward directness—language that isn’t evasive or periphrastic.

Toward simplicity—in construction and word choice.

Toward clarity—a constant lookout for ambiguity.

Toward rhythm—where it’s lacking.

Toward literalness—as an antidote to obscurity.

Toward implication—the silent utterance of your sentences.

Toward variation—always.

Toward silence—leave some.

Toward the name of the world—yours to discover.

Toward presence—the quiet authority of your prose.

Say more than you thought you knew how to say

In sentences better than you ever imagined

For the reader who reads between the lines.