When I'm editing any piece of writing, I have to leave comments. Lately, a comment I've had to leave a lot is, "I don't quite understand this sentence. What meaning are you trying to convey?"
Sometimes, the clauses of the sentence don't agree or the connotation of a word was unclear. While it's possible that I could infer the meaning that the author was trying to convey, I don't know. That would be imposing. I'm not them. I'm just the editor.
An author has the luxury of defining "the business of the author" in ways that many professions don't have. Their books are their own, their style is their own, their purpose is their own. People, then, can impose meaning on those works. When works become quotable, sometimes, their sentences become more iconic than the works they came from [with mixed results].
Francine Prose (2006) says, "Beauty, in a sentence, is ultimately as difficult to quantify or describe as beauty in a painting or a human face...if you are considering what might constitute strong, vigorous, energetic, and clear sentences--you are already far in advance of wherever you were before you were conscious of the sentence as something deserving our deep respect and enraptured attention."
The definition is intentionally vague. A beautiful sentence does not need to be mechanically correct in all respects. Beautiful sentences can be a collection of fragments that happen to have "rhythm" or a certain "cadence" to them. It wouldn't be so far-fetched to argue that correct sentences are all alike, but every beautiful sentence is beautiful in its own way.
One example that Francine Prose cites is part of the opening of Virginia Woolf's essay, "On Being Ill". For the sake of brevity, I will not transcribe it, but click on the title to read the essay. Specifically, Woolf discusses the nature of illness in literature. Despite the opening sentence length of 181 words, Prose notes how pleasurable it is to read and how artfully that sentence was crafted.
In Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style, he has a full chapter devoted to the utility of the sentence diagram. In my post on this chapter, I state that while it's not essential to learn the ins and outs of diagramming a sentence, a good diagram can make a helpful visual. The planning of a piece of writing, as diagramming proves, can take place at the sentence level.
Regarding Woolf's opening sentence, Prose (2006) states, "It makes us wish that students were still taught to diagram sentences, to map them into instantly visible, comprehensible charts that make it not only easy but necessary to account for each word and to keep track of which phrase is modifying which noun, which clause follows which antecedent."
A beautiful sentence, then, is one upon which a person will intentionally want to spend time breaking down into its parts such that as much meaning as possible can be taken from it. Prose did show by example, in her previous chapter, the utility of close reading word by word. It's highly productive instruction on how to read productively when reading to write.
Some of the same writers seeking to read in order to write will have manuals of style and books full of writing advice. The drawback to this discourse, Prose argues, is that they almost exclusively advise writers on how *not* to write. Many writing advisors and mentors will fall into a trap full of "don't".
Advice like this can be useful, especially when framed in this way: "If your goal is x, then using the y method won't be as effective."
However, a litany of advice on how not to write can drown out the type of advice that will help writers to express their intentions. This is where, Prose states, literature comes in, as it can create a "positive model." Literature can help a writer to become better acquainted with the effect that they want to create in their writing.
A modern example of a positive model, in my view, can be found in Jordy Rosenberg's Confessions of the Fox:
“When a woman regards you with her inevitable expression-- the one that says: I'm waiting for you in the future; catch up, catch up-- you will liberate yourself from every pre-existing bond, body, and name you ever had.
And go with her” (2018).
This is a collection of sentences with a distinct rhythm. With its intentional emphases, use of punctuation, the strength of the words, "bond" and "body", and with the way that strength seems to evolve when that consonance ends, this is just abstract enough to create personal distinct meanings while specific enough to understand the urgency of what happens around it. Also, one understands that what happens around it has urgency.
The period at the end of "had" is followed by what is often regarded as a faux pas, a sentence beginning with "and". Without that moment, we do not have pause or space, something that I will define as an absence. It is a necessary absence that presents the impact of the aforementioned "liberation". There is nothing negative about this liberation, though, as there is nothing negative about that pause and absence that is followed by, "And go with her."
The business of the author is self-defined, and the creation of those iconic sentences can be a worthwhile pursuit.
Intention must come first.
Thank you so much to everyone who has provided feedback on Purposeful Prose thus far!
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If you want to join the conversation, I highly suggest buying Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose through your local independent bookstore or Bookshop.org through which proceeds will be donated to independent bookstores.
As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Prose, F. (2006). Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (P.S.). Union Books.
Rosenberg, J. (2018). Confessions of the Fox: A Novel (Reprint ed.). One World.
Woolf, V. (1993). On being ill. Family business review, 6(2), 199-201.