Tuesday’s Tip: The Breathtaking Sentence

Maciej Ratajski, The Moment You Read it for the First Time

Maciej Ratajski, The Moment You Read It for the First Time, 2013, vinyl lettering on wall (artwork © 2013 Maciej Ratajski, http://www.maciejratajski.com)

Guest Post by Professor Phoebe Zerwick

In my first-year writing classes, I focus mostly on what those of us who teach writing call global issues: using evidence to support a claim, using transitions to keep focus, and organizing material for clarity and purpose. But those of us who love to read know that often it’s the well-crafted sentence that takes our breath away.

I got to thinking about sentences last week when a link to a list of ten best sentences put together by the editors at the American Scholar appeared on my Facebook page. It was a big favorite with my writer friends. Here’s one, by Ernest Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms:  “Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation.”

A few days later, Roy Peter Clark, the resident writing guru at the Poynter Institute, a center for the study of journalism, explained what makes this sentence so great:

Donald Murray used to preach the 2-3-1 rule of emphasis.  Place the least emphatic words in the middle.  The second most important go at the beginning.  The most important nails the meaning at the end.  Hemingway offers a version of that here. A metaphor of flowing water is framed by two abstractions Anger and Obligation.  That fact that the metaphor is drawn from the action of the narrative makes it more effective.

All this got me thinking about my students and the sentences they write. There’s no box for “breathtaking sentence” in my grading rubric. But a well-crafted sentence sure makes me smile. So what makes for a well-crafted sentence? As with everything in writing, it depends on what the writer wants to say.

I am often drawn to a well-placed short sentence at the end of a paragraph. It’s not that I have an aversion to long sentences, but I admire brevity. My writing students just finished up a long assignment that asked them to set a personal narrative in a larger context by responding to other writing on the same topic. One student wrote about growing up with a brother who has Asperger’s Syndrome.  He gave me permission to discuss his essay here in this space. He and his brother went to a therapist together all through elementary school never thinking to question why. During one session, the therapist accidentally let it slip. “It is tough sometimes, having a brother with autism?”  The revelation left my student and his brother confused. The experts he’d been reading recommended a better way for therapists to share diagnoses with children: a quiet conversation with the entire family that would have given them the chance to grieve together. But that’s not what happened. The student writer ended the paragraph about therapy with this sentence: “In real life, there were no tears, just unanswered questions; the tears would come later.” The essay was seven pages long, but that single sentence captures so much of the shock and grief and confusion the student writer felt as a child. That took my breath away and made me smile.

Phoebe Zerwick, March, 2014