Review: Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft

A Great Course Taught by Professor Brooks Landon

In this thirteen-hour lecture series, Professor Brooks Landon guides us through the crafting of long sentences, long sentences that please the ear and capture the rhythms of speech and nature, that use free modifiers to add information to a sentence is ways that remain coherent to the reader, carefully contemplated and structure to maximum effect, whether suspensive sentences that delay their impact until the last moment or those that start with a bang from which they build; these are sentences that—when done well—shape the consciousness of the reader as she readers by carefully ordering a succession of thoughts and images and marrying substance and style.

See what I did there? It’s not a great example of the kinds of sentence that Professor Landon teaches in this course, but it does on a rudimentary level combine many of the techniques he discusses. The secret, of course, is doing it well.

I’m a huge fan of the Great Courses series. If you’re not familiar, Great Courses is a company that records—as you might imagine—great courses from highly-accomplished university professors. You can purchase courses as audio CDs, as DVDs (in some cases) or, and this is my personal favorite, as audiobooks through Audible. I don’t believe that Audible carries the full catalog of Great Courses, but their selection is broad and the price is lower than the alternative formats. Great Courses scratch the perpetual student itch I find myself constantly plagued by.

Free advertising aside, let’s talk about this course in particular. Upon explaining to K what I was listening to, her response was an emphatic, “Nerd!” The exclamation continued when I explained that the course contained thirteen hours of lectures on sentence-writing. But I own my nerdom and, besides, K knew what this was when she married me.

The foundational lectures of this course drew me in and, I think, were alone worth the price of admission. Prof. Landon argues that sentence structure is a matter of influencing consciousness. We know that words have power, and being able to hack people’s brains by writing seemed like a cool ability, so I was on board from the get-go.

After discussing the implied premises that sentences contain[1], briefly mentioning Noam Chomsky’s “deep structure theory”, and busting some myths about the primacy of the short sentence (take that Strunk & White!) Landon goes on to provide many practical techniques for lengthening sentences while maintaining or increasing readability. For Landon, well-written sentences provide more information, flow better and better structure the progression of ideas that move forward in steps than short sentences do.

The major technique Landon explains is the use of “free modifiers”, phrases that can be placed in (almost) any part of a sentence and remain grammatically correct. Once establishing the concept, he goes on to demonstrate advanced techniques using free modifiers, from suspensive sentences (and the various effects of different locations of a free modifier) to duple and triple rhythms as rhetorical and poetic tools.

Throughout the way, Landon provides numerous examples of the concepts he discusses—many from famous and well-respected wordsmiths but also some of his own or his students’ creations. Even more, he makes many references to other writers on the nature of writing, providing many additional resources for continuing to explore Landon’s ideas and good writing in general.

Like most writing techniques, the stylistic mechanisms preached by Landon are easy to learn but quite difficult to master. You’ll likely see me experimenting on this blog with certain of the techniques to develop my own proficiency with them.

Landon is well accomplished in his field and clearly passionate about good writing. And he sounds a bit like Jimmy Stewart, which made absorbing his lectures all the more amusing.

If, like me, you’re on the lookout to improve your writing game, this course represents a relatively small investment of time that could pay dividends in the long run. I highly recommend it.

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[1] For instance, in the first part of this sentence: (1) there are things called sentences, (2) there are things called premises, (3) sentences imply premises.

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