not every sentence can be great but every sentence must be good

brevityThrilled to have a craft essay in the new issue of Brevitywhich includes fifteen brief wonderful essays by Sven Birkerts, Brian Doyle, Robin Hemley, David Jauss, Thomas Larson, and more. Plus other craft essays by Philip Graham and Mary Clearman Blew. And an interview with Terry Tempest Williams.

Here’s the beginning of my essay:

In “Letter from the Pulitzer Fiction Jury: What Really Happened This Year” (The New Yorker online, July 9, 2012), Michael Cunningham, one of the three Pulitzer fiction jurors for 2012, wrote the following about sentences:

- I was the language crank, the one who swooned over sentences. I could forgive much in a book if it was written with force and beauty, if its story was told in a voice unlike anything I’d heard before, if the writer was finding new and mesmerizing ways to employ the same words that have been available to all American writers for hundreds of years. I tended to balk if a book contained some good lines but also some indifferent ones. I insisted that every line should be a good one. I was—and am—a bit fanatical on the subject.

True to his word, during the jury process, Cunningham argued successfully to eliminate a contender because, “although there were plenty of good lines, there were simply too many slack, utilitarian ones.”

Since July I’ve been thinking about Cunningham’s insistence that every sentence should be a good one. I would periodically look for his letter online, and, having forgotten I’d already printed it, print it again. When I was going through a pile of articles in my office recently, I found I had three copies. Then, Pam Houston, when reading my novel-in-progress, marked a sentence with this word: boring. When I took a closer look, she was right. The sentence was boring. And utilitarian. Only there to move the reader from point A to point B.

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14 thoughts on “not every sentence can be great but every sentence must be good

  1. What a beautiful essay, Cynthia, thoughtful, cogent. Every sentence makes your point. Seems it is the “essential essay” for all writers in any stage of the process but especially revision. Thanks!

    Karen

  2. Interesting point about sentences being more than utilitarian. That would be the difference between a first draft and a final draft. Writing is like a geometric proof: there are many possible solutions but the best one is the most elegant.

    • Well, I was never any good in math…When I think of elegant sentences, I think of Alice Munro. I need to pull one of her collections off the shelf and take a look.

  3. Beautiful. It’s calls for whiskey to celebrate showing some love of language, wherever we find it. Come on, printer, don’t hold back and thirst for ink. I want a hard copy *now*. Very nicely done. Oh, and May Sarton. Thank you for that. I’ve been thinking of her and that book for weeks and felt so lonely. It’s nice to know her writing is still held up as an example.

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