(A bit of housekeeping: hello from Substack! This newsletter, formerly known as Bibliopath, used to be sent from Tinyletter, which I still love in the way that you only really love things with a singular use. However, it was unmaintained and lost my work more than once—Substack is a shiny new alternative and offers a way to offer a paid subscription. I want to keep Topic Sentence free for the foresesable future—but I’d like to start exploring ways to be free to invest more time into sentences.
If you’re reading this, you don’t need to do anything—it means that the transfer from the Tinyletter subscription worked. If you’re reading this and not sure why you’re getting it, feel free to unsubscribe—I write an excellent unsubscribe page. You could also try and make sure this doesn’t land in your spam, using any of the instructions that I completely fail to do when I’m instructed to do so.
And final housekeeping, with a new home, comes a new title: Topic Sentence!)
And now, here’s our topic sentence:
Soon, you’ll grasp that sentences originate and take their endless variety from within you, from your reading, your tactile memory for rhythms, your sense of the playfulness at the heart of the language, your perception of the world.
This comes from Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing.
Worst things first: the formatting of this book annoys me so much. It’s formatted as though it was a poem, complete with line-breaks mid-sentence, but is actually an essay about writing and language, why we struggle all our life to recover from our primary school writing education, and how to compose writing at a sentence level.
I keep meeting people who say, almost without prompting, ‘I’m not much of a writer’. These thoughts tend to be seeded by early educational experiences, or familial comparisons and/or shame. Writing is not an on/off switch but a craft that can be learned, I believe, by anyone who wants to earn it through reading.
So many misconceptions about writing emerge at the educational level. We are taught not to repeat words so that we expand our vocabulary, when repetition is an important part of a writer’s toolkit. We are taught not to start sentences with ‘and’ so that we avoid the childish habit of run-on sentences (“And then we … And then…”), when it is both grammatically correct, and sometimes perfectly effective. (The Gospel of Mark being Exhibit A.)
This is not to hate on English teachers who are some of my favourite people on the planet—mine changed my life. But sometimes it is worth thinking about who wrote the story you tell yourself, particularly the story about how ‘you’re not much of a writer’.
I read every writing book I can get my hands on, and Klinkenborg’s is a description of writing that I haven’t seen before. He argues that we move away from conceiving of writing as ‘getting your thoughts down on paper’ and towards shaping your thoughts at the level of the sentence, and for not dividing the level of writing and revision too sharply:
Revision isn’t only the act of composition. Revision is thinking applied to language, an opening and reopening of discovery, a search for the sentence that says the thing you had no idea you could say hidden inside the sentence you’re making.
On style, he writes:
Style is an expression of the interest you take in the making of every sentence. It emerges, almost without intent, from your engagement with each sentence. It’s the discoveries you make in the making of the prose itself.
This sort of argument isn’t going to work for everybody. It may already sound too poetical for you right now. But for those that it does work for (those who want to learn to write well), it’s a remarkable and rare spur for how you engineer the mental work of this craft. But then again, I suppose I’m always going to be biased towards anyone who argues for further thinking at the level of the sentence.
I just wish that he had done more of what he argues for, and put it in the form of an essay. Although, to give Klinkenborg the last word:
Form is discovery too.
(I don’t usually ask this, but if you enjoyed this, it would be an especially good time to tweet out about it, hand-write a letter to a friend about it, or write a cryptic haiku which you leave on the lunch room desk.)