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What Writing Is

Published on 10th August 2019

One of my writing professors once said that writers should strive to author sentences
that are “inevitable.” Such a striking phrase, and one that has become my go-to
whenever I think about writing on the level of the sentence. I’ve developed a
“radar,” of sorts, for detecting sentences that are “inevitable.” I don’t use any strict
criteria—the detection is more intuitive than anything. Yet the best sentences, I’ve found, are those
that are unintuitive. You wouldn’t have ever imagined they would work, and yet
once you’ve read them they feel like not just the most natural construction in the world, but the only possible construction in the world. 

Think of that one line from the poem Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley: “Tell that its sculptor well those passions read.” Even accounting for the differences between modern English and that of 1811, it’s a strange phrase. Yet in rhythm and meaning, it is utterly delightful. Change the order of any two words, and you’ve disturbed the delicate equilibrium of the whole house of cards. Mesmerizing, yet fragile. When you’re dealing with a unit as small and yet as fundamental as the sentence, as sensitive to the syntactical and semantic vibrations of every word choice, it must be. Mark Twain captured the essential vulnerability of the sentence when he said that “the difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the same as that between lightning and the lightning bug.”

Another professor of mine, the very first I had at Yale, argued that the most gripping writing—fiction and nonfiction alike—consists of a “series of small surprises.” At the time, I thought he was referring to the plot, the narrative turning points. I’ve since realized that he was referring to the sentence, each and everyone. Every sentence should be a small surprise. 

That’s what writing is: the art of the inevitable yet surprising sentence.



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