Early last month I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. Here’s #3:
A good sentence is more than the sum of its parts.
We talk about “constructing” sentences as if sentences can be built block by block like houses and bridges, and in a way they can.
We learn the building blocks early on. A sentence must have a subject and a verb. It can then be dressed up with direct objects, indirect objects, prepositional phrases, and clauses of various kinds. The component parts can be dressed up with adjectives and adverbs. Two complete sentences can be linked with a conjunction — the most common ones are and, but, and or — a semicolon, or a colon.
To make matters more complicated, or more fun, depending on how you think of it, sentences are rarely entire of themselves. They exist in relation to other sentences. They can be joined into paragraphs. Even when a sentence stands alone on a line, a paragraph unto itself, the reader connects them as she moves from one to another.
Sentences can be grammatical and unclear at the same time. Here’s a snippet I quoted in “Editing Workshop, 3,” which focused on sentences:
Smith requested and received permission to publish the translation from Jones in 2005. . . . Smith, in an interview, described the text as boring.
This comes from a long nonfiction manuscript I edited earlier this year. I skidded to a halt at the end of that first sentence. It wasn’t the translation that came from Jones but the permission, and the work wasn’t published till 2008. In the second sentence, “in an interview” weakens the connection between subject and verb by coming between them. Here’s my edit:
In 2005, Smith requested and received permission from Jones to publish the translation. . . . In an interview, Smith described the text as boring.
None of the words have been changed. They’ve just been rearranged.
We can critique sentences in isolation, but often we can’t tell what’s unclear or clear enough, what’s more effective and what’s less so, unless we see it in context. Here’s an example from my novel in progress. “She” is a sixth-grader swinging on the school playground. “It” is a dog trotting down the path behind the school. She’s never seen it before.
She watched it as the swing descended and then rose again. Its head snapped to the left, then it took off up the path at a flat-out run.
Nothing wrong with that, although an overly meticulous copyeditor might argue that the “its” at the beginning of the second sentence could be taken to refer to the swing. Most readers know that swings rarely have heads, so this “it” must be the same as the one in the first sentence. But I turned the first sentence around:
As the swing descended and then rose again, she watched it. Its head snapped to the left, then it took off up the path at a flat-out run.
Moving the dependent clause to the beginning emphasizes the motion of the girl on the swing. Then the movement stops for a moment before starting up again, this time following the dog. I also liked the way the revision brought “it” and “its” together.
Play with your sentences. Rearrange them. Read them out loud, in isolation and with the sentences that precede and follow them.
Once in a while I’ll screech to a halt and gawk at a beautifully constructed sentence. Casual readers don’t generally do this, but writers and editors can be forgiven for taking a second look at an admirable sentence.
Or a not-so-admirable one. I don’t know about you, but I probably learn more from the sentences that don’t work than from the sentences that do. Identifying what doesn’t work is easy. Understanding what makes a sentence clear, effective, eloquent, whatever — this is hard. Awkward and unclear sentences clamor for attention. Good sentences just flow on by. This may be one reason editors and teachers get a reputation for being negative and critical: we naturally focus on the sentences that don’t work so well.
Remind me to flag a couple of really, really good sentences in the next manuscript I edit!