According to the Oxford English Dictionary, our language has more than 100 synonyms for verb forms of “to be wordy,” a detail I find beautifully enigmatic. English is rich, and writing sentences is an art with few concrete boundaries. But crafting great sentences means choosing the right type of sentence structure.
I love to read (and re-read) great books on beautiful sentences of all shapes and sizes: sound sentences, long sentences, short sentences, pop sentences, classic sentences, and literary sentences. I find it helpful to take apart a great sentence, break it down into its individual parts, and see how it works (like a typewriter).
Recently, I posted a picture of some of these books on Instagram, and got enough questions to warrant a quick explanation for why I chose these certain titles as my five favorites. And from the start I should mention that none of these books are written by Christian authors, at least not to my knowledge. In each case, the unbelieving worldviews of these non-Christian writers are not always shrouded.
Now, to the list.
On writing fundamentally sound sentences:
Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams
This is a book for all writers. It’s a brief, to-the-point, and refreshingly visual guide to putting good sentences together. I read this book back in my early days of writing (way back in ought-nine), and it’s been with me ever since. At $30, it’s a wallet-gouging, over-priced little guide, used in a lot of academic training. For less expensive options for general writing help, see Roy Peter Clark and Steven Pinker below.
On writing long sentences:
Building Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read by Brooks Landon
This book is for more experienced writers who want to master the art of the long, right-branching sentence that seems to expand with no necessary end in site, that sends waves of compounding details washing over the reader and descriptions flowing to the mind. The content in this book was first a video lecture series, but the published version is a now more affordable way to get the same details. No surprise, Landon often is guilty of feather-tongued multiloquence.
On writing short sentences:
How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times by Roy Peter Clark
Great journalists know how to write compact sentences, and Roy Peter Clark is one of the best. He also trains the best. Roy Peter Clark is to the writing life what Paul David Tripp is to the Christian life: You just read everything he writes, and enjoy the overlap. This book is a goldmine of writing advice.
Clark has a new book on reading, for writers, with a lot of tips on penning sentences: The Art of X-Ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing (2016).
Beginning writers, especially, should consider everything by Clark. See also his books Writing Tools (2008), The Glamour of Grammar (2011), and Help! For Writers (2013).
On writing pop sentences:
Word Hero: A Fiendishly Clever Guide to Crafting the Lines that Get Laughs, Go Viral, and Live Forever by Jay Heinrichs
Pop sentences may or may not be useful for you as a writer, but every writer (and reader) can benefit from learning the lessons of the most thoughtful pop stylists. So much thought goes into witticisms and snappy pop-culture writing that understanding these trendy tips will help you frame your own message for today’s reading culture. Heinrichs is a genius when it comes to arguments and rhetoric (see his bestselling book, Thank You for Arguing), and his book Word Hero is equally valuable. Perhaps most impressive to me was the way he formulates the subtle skills of using syllabic sounds to strengthen sense and setting.
On writing classic sentences:
Clear and Simple As the Truth: Writing Classic Prose by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner
Thomas and Turner’s book is definitely for advanced writers. I feel like I’m cheating a bit here because the whole point of classic style is to not focus on the mechanics of sentence structure, but to build the flow of logic.
This is a subtle art mastered by French writers, but once you get a handle on it, you will learn why the readers of C. S. Lewis’s essays sometimes feel like they arrive at the conclusions before Lewis does. There’s a method behind classic style’s persuasive powers, and Thomas and Turner explain the deeper philosophical substructures well.
A good summary of the classic style can be found in The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker. Pinker devotes his entire second chapter to a synopsis of Thomas and Turner, and loads the remainder of the book with practical tips for pulling it off. Pinker’s attempt is less philosophical, less advanced, and more practical.
In Pinker’s words, “Classic style is not a contemplative or romantic style, in which a writer tries to share his idiosyncratic, emotional, and mostly ineffable reactions to something. Nor is it a prophetic, oracular, or oratorical style, where the writer has the gift of being able to see things that no one else can, and uses the music of language to unite an audience. . . . The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself” (28–29).
Classic writing isn’t punchy or sexy, it’s often long, works best in books, rarely goes viral, and it’s certainly not the best style for every situation. But it is a style you must master if you want to understand the psychology of persuasion and if you want to use sentences to move readers toward ah-ha moments of self-discovery. And the important philosophy behind the style is why I say don’t pass over Thomas and Turner too quickly.
On writing literary sentences:
Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style by Virginia Tufte
Tufte’s book is for advanced writers, and I recommend this book all the time because it’s worthy of repeated commendation. Tufte dives into what makes sentences work well, and highlights hundreds of the best sentences she can find. Every serious writer should have a copy of this book on hand to read and enjoy, as Tufts splendidly reveals the secrets behind the slight of hand by the masters of literature.
So there it is, my favorite books on writing sentences. Like a well-balanced workout, writers will need exercise in all these fields: a technical kettlebell routine (classic), some jogging (long), and walks (literary), sit-ups (short), and a little PX90 (pop).
Also in this series:
6 thoughts on “Books on Building Great Sentences (Advice for Writers)”
Two questions for you. First, on “Building Great Sentences”, I read this is better for fiction writers than non-fiction. I fall in the latter category (i.e. accessible theology?). Secondly, can you clarify what you mean by “advanced”? I just finished writing my first book which is to be published by P&R Publishing in February 2016. I read many of the standard classics on writing like Strunk & White, Zinsser and even Roy Peter Clark before editing/ finishing my final manuscript. Would I be able to progress to the “advanced” category yet? Thanks for the heads up on these books. I am working on a new proposal for my publisher and I only want to write better and better.
Great questions. I only write non-fiction but I find the masters of fiction have writing styles that I can learn from and use. The book on long sentences helped me write a dramatic portrayal of John Newton’s shipwreck at sea using a lot of the techniques I learned in Building. So I say learn from all type of writers (even poets). Yes, you are ready for the advanced books. Tufte I think would especially help you, if you’re convinced that lit greats have lessons to teach us pastoral types. Love your heart! Writing is like golf. Perfection is impossible. Just keep working and getting better!
Thank you Tony! And I hope you write more and more posts on writing.
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Thank you, Tony, (and mscottc) for placing me in such great company. I bumped into the book “Clear and Simple as the Truth,” and it influenced my thinking, writing, and teaching. Compared to my work (or Zinsser) it will feel a little abstract and academic. But when I got it and began to understand the “classic style,” it steered my thinking to other styles — high and low — that we need for fiction and nonfiction. Thanks again.
Hi Tony, are all of your recommendations suitable in Kindle format? Sometimes the visuals and aesthetic presentaion, which may be important to content, do not crossover well to e-format?
Also, is there any value or usefulness in diagramming sentences?