BOOK REVIEW: Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon

Building Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to ReadBuilding Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read by Brooks Landon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page

The Great Courses page

This book goes along with a video course of the same name from “The Great Courses,” but it can be obtained independently as well.

Landon’s book is one of the most beneficial writing books that I’ve read, and is the most beneficial one about sentence-level composition. The book’s core premise is that crafting richer, more interesting, and more artful sentences requires the ability to build longer sentences. This doesn’t mean there is no room for short and simple sentences. It simply means that if all one writes are short and simple sentences, one’s writing will read choppily, will provide limited detail, and – let’s face it – one probably doesn’t need to read a book on the subject after successfully completing elementary school.

Of course, it’s not enough to build longer sentences; the sentences must be enjoyable and readable. This is where learning how to write the right kind of long sentences comes into play. Landon argues the benefits of cumulative sentence syntax, using free modifiers to add propositions about a base clause (and / or about other modifying clauses.) He’s not suggesting that one only use this type of sentence, shunning the other varieties of syntax, but he does show how this approach allows one to build longer sentences that won’t lose the reader, a trait that cannot be claimed of sentences using fixed modifiers.

The first half of the book introduces cumulative syntax, showing how it compares to other syntactic patterns, presenting evidence of its superiority, and demonstrating how sentences using it can be improved and pitfalls avoided.

The second half of the book explores the various directions one can take one’s writing via cumulative sentences. Chapter eight discusses two types of information that can be introduced via free modifiers: comparisons and speculation. If one was taught to avoid injecting personal guesses and commentary into one’s writing, speculative propositions might seem particularly strange, but part of the beauty of this book is that it discourages mindless obedience to writing dogma, a trait that is in rare supply among writing books.

There is a chapter on prose rhythm. As in other sections, the focus is on cumulative sentences, but even with respect to cumulative syntax, the discussion is limited to a few key concepts because the topic is just too complex to address in great detail.

There are two chapters on suspensive sentences. Like the punchline of a joke, a suspensive sentence puts the most surprising or intriguing information at the tail end. This can be used to make sentences that are not only humorous, but also ones that are surprising or memorable. However, suspensiveness is not without a cost. Suspensive sentences are typically left-branching (or middle-branching) such that part or all of the base clause is at the very end. Throughout the book, Landon gives special emphasis / preference to right-branching cumulative sentences, meaning the base clause is the first thing one reads and the modifiers are tagged on behind. The benefit of the right-branching sentence is that it can be made quite long while maintaining readability. On the other hand, a suspensive sentence can lose the reader before they reach the base clause because they don’t have any central concept on which to tag what may read like a disparate collection of modifiers.

Chapters twelve and thirteen delve into writing in a balanced rhythm (Ch. 12) or in a rhythm of threes (Ch. 13.) Balances are phrases, clauses, or sentences presented in opposition. There are many technical terms to describe ways of balancing (e.g. anaphora, epanalepsis, epistrophe, polyptoton, etc.) but the emphasis isn’t on vocabulary building but rather on examples of these effective modes of sentence building.

Chapter fourteen discusses the idea of “master sentences” — long sentences skillfully crafted to not only convey information and to be readable, but also to make for pleasant reading experiences. The final chapter is a wrap-up but also makes an argument for valuing education in sentence-level writing, an area of the discipline that has apparently gone by the wayside in recent decades.

I found this book to be incredibly beneficial. If you are interested in how to grow your sentences longer without having them become an impenetrable thicket of incomprehension, this is the book for you. The author provides plenty of examples to make his meaning clear, and he also references other books that can be of benefit to writers seeking to hone their sentence crafting skills.

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