Not Every Sentence Can Be Great But Every Sentence Must Be Good

This post, by Cynthia Newberry Martin, originally appeared on Brevity on 1/8/13.

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.

I don’t read looking for bad sentences, and now I wonder if I read right over them. Or do the best books not contain bad sentences?

Is it possible to write a whole book of sentences that are at least good?

I pulled books from my shelves and searched through them. I ignored sentences I had underlined, and I ignored first sentences—both of books and of chapters. Where would a bad sentence hide? Page one hundred forty-three, I thought. That’s where a bad sentence would hide. So in each of the books, I turned to the first complete sentence (that was not dialogue) on page one hundred forty-three. Here’s what I found, starting with the language crank’s own sentences:

The Hours: This cake says “Happy Birthday Dan” in elegant white script, uncrowded by the clusters of yellow roses.

By Nightfall: Rebecca sips contemplatively at her coffee.

Mourning Diary, by Roland Barthes: M’s fit of anger yesterday evening.

The Two Kinds of Decay, by Sarah Manguso: This adrenal suppression occurs if prednisone is taken for longer than seven days.

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion: She was reaching a point at which she would need once again to be, if she was to recover, on her own.

Stop-Time, by Frank Conroy: The balcony trembled.

We hear plenty about writing great sentences; what we don’t hear enough about is the bar we don’t want to slip below—the bar each sentence must meet. And that is not the bar of great but the bar of good. These six sentence examples are not great, but I believe each one meets the crank’s requirement of good.

What makes a sentence good?


Click here to read the rest of the post on Brevity.