First You Write a Sentence is the best book about writing I’ve ever read, and that says a lot. As a journalist for forty years and now a novelist for ten, I live by the written word, with a passion for improvement. Joe Morgan is my soulmate.
Morgan begins his book quoting Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, noting while the novel is rich in substance, what Flaubert really cared about were its sentences: their rhythm, wit, beauty, style, and effect. These are values that Moran shares, and so too should anyone who puts pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.
Moran is an academic (professor of English at Liverpool John Moores University), and he aims a lot of his barbs and advice at academic writing, but everything he says applies just as much to journalism, novels, blogs, and everyday emails. He does a wonderful job of taking apart sentences, the building blocks of any writing, as well as words, syllables, and vowels.
I can’t do justice to Moran’s analysis and advice, and he’s reluctant to fall into a rule-making mode. But in general, he urges writers to love verbs and go easy on nouns as well as adjectives and adverbs. He advocates cutting syllables wherever possible (use start instead of begin; enough, not sufficient; person, not individual; dead instead of deceased; cut not shorten), and he suggests ending sentences on a stressed syllable and shows what a difference that can make.
He is particularly good on rhythm, syntax, and structure. He shows how effective simple conjunctions–and, but–are, and he warns against the overuse of dependent clauses, both long and short. Consider the difference, he says, in the following:
He opened his eyes and was struck.
When he opened his eyes, he was struck.
Having opened his eyes, he was struck.
The first is obviously the strongest, though so many novice writers bend over backwards to use dependent clauses for a variation that isn’t needed and is downright harmful.
Moran also gets into the importance of vowel sounds and consonant sounds, and how important the mix can be. He suggests stripping your pages of “shun” words (evaluation, function) and “tate” words (facilitate, necessitate) which too often become mumblespeak, especially in academic writing. And of course he spends a lot of time on the importance of varying sentence length.
If you want to write better, read this book several times (it’s become a permanent fixture on my bedside table). And don’t miss the fact that whatever point Moran wants to make in a given paragraph, he is doing it with sentences that do exactly what he preaches.