The Ghostwriter and How to Write a Sentence

A sentence. On its face, a sentence is a very simple thing to write. Stick a noun and a verb together and tah-dah! you’ve got yourself a sentence.

She cried.
Eliot trembled.
The sky darkened
. (Okay, I slipped in a definite article. Sue me.)

A piece of cake, no? So how is it that so many people muck it up? For starters, that noun and verb, while the essential building blocks of a sentence, are often used as weak scaffolding for the incoherent edifices that many writers construct. Noun, verb, adjective, adverb (more than one of each), dependent clause, adverbial clause piled one upon the other. Add mood, voice, case… oh my, you can see how things can go south very quickly.

For too many writers, writing a sentence is like piling on layer upon layer of clothes. To be sure, sometimes the layers are nice; sometimes they are of fine fabric but ultimately to be beautiful they must bring to life what is beneath, not mask what is beneath. Strip away the words, just as you would strip away layers of clothing, and you arrive at the thing itself – in this case, the writer at her most naked. Her sentence.

Let me be quick to say that writing a good sentence is not about being naked (in either a real or metaphorical sense.) It is about having the courage to be naked. It is that courage that suffuses a sentence with power.

A good sentence does not say, “Oh my, I am not pretty enough to be naked.” A good sentence says, “This is what I am and what I am is, by definition, exactly what I should be. Therefore, I am beautiful.”

There is nothing more powerful, more seductive, more compelling than courage. If you infuse your sentence (and the sentences to follow) with courage, you will find that one, all those awful layers of words that you’ve been using to mask what is true about your sentence are unnecessary and two, that you are writing what you really want to write. You are being truly and wholly your narrative “you.”

Try this simple exercise: Take any sentence you’ve written and strip it down. Take away the adverbs. Now, take away the adjectives. Keep going. Don’t stop now. Don’t hide behind a clause or two. Get down to the naked sentence. Now, write another sentence after it, equally stripped down. And another.

When you’ve got a paragraph, strut it around a bit. Then and only then, dress your sentences up a bit. Just enough to show off the bareness beneath, not to hide it. If you can do this, you will be a much better and much stronger writer.

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