It’s a certain type of person who would glance at the plain white cover of Brooks Landon’s Building Great Sentences and be tempted to give it a look. Granted, it’s not the most grabbing of titles. But Landon delivers exactly as promised, offering useful advice and his opinion on why focusing on the minutiae of sentence form can turn a good writer into a great writer.
In the past ten years, writing has become truncated, shortened to its core meaning, especially in the age of the internet. No more is this evident than the emergence of the Hemingway App, an admittedly super helpful tool for writers (which I use regularly-though not for these free-flowing blogs). The app helps writers eliminate needless words and distill their message while retaining the intended meaning. Hemingway is great, no doubt, but I’ve been having this feeling that it also kind of takes the soul out of your writing. Looking at a draft after its had a bout with Hemingway, you see that the writing has improved. But the new draft often looks like most internet-based writing: Informative, but without much style.
I don’t know much about Landon, but I would assume that he would tear into this new style of writing, which eschews style for simpler, declarative sentences. In his book, Landon urges the writing to experiment with sentence length and to embrace style by having fun with their sentences.
He introduces his ideas by explaining left branching and right-branching sentences, which make up the core of his teachings. With descriptions that are both clear and flowery, scholarly but with plenty of humor, Landon explains that left branching sentences lead to the core sentence. The last sentence was an example of a left branching sentence (allow maybe not a great one). In contrast, a right-branching sentence leads with its kernel subject, extending the statement into a blizzard of modifier, each word building off the last, as if the kernel were the initial spark that sets the sentence into hyperdrive. Yeah, that was a right-branching sentence.
Although he regards longer sentences as inherently more valuable Landon makes a sharp distinction between good sentences and simply long ones. He advises to cut out as many conjunctions and replace them with powerful verbs, urging the writer to use verbs that cast the sentence forth, refusing to rely on empty connectors that don’t add to the text, but rather confuse the reader. How was that?
As someone who is hired to write online content, this was a tough read. I wanted so bad to practice some of Landon’s exercises in my professional writing. Unfortunately, many of Landon’s beliefs don’t jibe with online writing, which relies on grabbing readers and keeping eyeballs on the page. But for blogs and creative writing, why not?
Landon also delves into the mysterious art of the power of three, known by any comedy writer. This is the concept that groups of three always work better, whether it’s because of our attention span, tradition, or just our brain’s reaction to the number (See? Rule of three). You’ll notice pairs of three everywhere in pop culture: The Three Stooges, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, The Three Musketeers. Landon posits many theories to why we love three so much such as our 3-dimensional universe, our calendar being made up of years, months, and days, our schools divided as elementary, middle, and high, and that our food is divided into proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Who knows the real reason? Nobody, but I thought it was at least interesting to read about.
I would recommend Building Great Sentences to the hardcore writers out there who are looking to give their writing a bit of heft. Since I started writing online, I’ve noticed my own writing become a bit stiff. I miss the days when I would approach a sentence like a picture, adding details to create a complete sketch rather than a blob of information. Reading the book gave me hope that maybe there’s still room for writers looking to write like someone other than Hemingway (who, Landon points out, wrote many long sentences throughout his works).