A letter from Roy Peter Clark
Great sentences come in many forms: short and long, feather-light or weighty, encrusted with punctuation or flowing without friction from capital letter to full stop. I am on the lookout for great sentences, and I need your help finding them. If you send them to me via The Writer magazine, I promise I will read them – and more.
Writers don’t just read great sentences, we X-ray read them. We not only read for meaning, but we look beneath the surface of a text to discover how the meaning is made. In an act of reverse-engineering, we figure out which of the writer’s moves made something clear, suspenseful, poignant, or ironic.
This is the stuff of my latest book, The Art of X-ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing, published by Little, Brown. In it, I wonder whether the best English sentence of all time is the one Geoffrey Chaucer used in 1380 to ignite The Canterbury Tales. I have committed that sentence – 18 poetic lines in Middle English – to memory and recite it for inspiration. I love its sound and structure, its movement, its manipulation of time, how it sets the stage for what follows.
My book was propelled in part by a feature in American Scholar magazine. Based on recommendations of its editors, the magazine offered readers “Ten Best Sentences,” drawn mostly from the canonical literature of the last century. My reaction when I read them? “These really are great sentences,” but then something more important: “I wonder what makes them great.”
I spent a long afternoon thinking about that question, reading and re-reading those “best sentences,” wearing my metaphorical X-ray reading glasses. With the permission of American Scholar, I published an essay with my close reading of each great example.
I want to do this again with my friends at The Writer magazine. We are looking for 10 – maybe 20 – great prose sentences (no poetry this go-round) drawn from published works of fiction or non-fiction in English, not translation. Our bias will be for well-known authors, but we are willing to be delighted and surprised. I am setting an arbitrary limit of 200 words, but two words (“Jesus wept”) might work just as well.
If we publish and X-ray your sentence, we will enter your name in a drawing to receive copies of The Art of X-ray Reading as well as the 10th-anniversary edition of Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer.
Example of X-ray reading in action
As you think about this happy task, here is an example for inspiration. I found it this morning in a tattered paperback book I have saved from high school: The Sea Around Us (1951) by Rachel L. Carson, one of the best science writers of the 20th century. I stumbled upon this sentence:
“For millennia beyond computation, the sea’s waves have battered the coastlines of the world with erosive effect, here cutting back a cliff, there stripping away tons of sand from a beach, and yet again, in a reversal of their destructiveness, building up a bar or a small island.”
For the record, that sentence uses 48 words. All but four contain just one or two syllables. It strikes me how free the sentence is of scientific language. The closest we get is “erosive effect,” which feels clear enough from context.
The writer’s goal is to make us “see” in both senses of the word: to visualize and to understand.
A powerful tool of clarity is placing a subject/verb/object sequence near the beginning of the sentence; “waves/battered/coastlines” does the trick. If you think of this sentence as a straight line, that main clause comes near the left end, with all the subordinate elements branching to the right.
But let’s account for that opening phrase: “For millennia beyond computation. . .” It contains two of the longest words – both of four syllables. An editor might suggest “For countless millennia,” but I would argue that “beyond computation” brings science and math into the equation, a period of time so long that it defies the attempts of experts to count it. Something about that introductory phrase fills what follows with mystery and grandeur.
After the main clause, the author gives us these two parallel participial phrases: “here cutting back. . .there stripping away.” This is over-interpretation, but the several commas give the sentence a wave-like quality that mirrors the meaning. What a nice surprise near the end, when the destructive effects of erosion are reversed, if not balanced, by a third participial phrase, this one with a positive denotation: “building up a bar or small island.”
I have just committed more than 200 words to the X-ray reading of a 48-word sentence. I hope I will be able to apply that kind of scrutiny to the great sentences that you submit for my inspection. Until then, happy reading.
—Roy Peter Clark
How to enter
Send your entry to [email protected] with the subject line “X-ray Reading.”
Entries are due by Sept. 28, 2016.
Please include in your entry:
» great sentence
» name of the book or work it came from
» name of the author
» contact information for you