Crafting the perfect sentence
This past week, on behalf of the Creative Writing Department, Brooks Landon from the University of Iowa gave a craft talk called, “The Gift of Style: Celebrating the Sentence.”
Event coordinator Adrian Blevins, Assistant Professor of Creative Writing, introduced Landon saying, “I almost had a heart attack when I heard there are 1,000 English Majors [at Iowa].” The talk, which was located in the Robinson Room of Miller Library, lasted for a little over an hour and was followed by a reception.
Landon began with some autobiographical information saying that he feels particularly connected to liberal arts colleges having attended Center College in Kentucky, “I always feel like I’m coming home when I come to liberal arts campuses,” he said.
The next part of his speech was an explanation of how he arrived at his specific approach to teaching writing.
His argument was that for nearly the past 100 years, the American English writing style guide, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White, has negatively changed the way students learn how to write in a negative way. “One of my goals,” he said, “is to undo some of the wrongs of The Elements of Style.”
In this argument, Landon also quoted several sources to explain how The Elements of Style, “has precisely rid us of style.”
One source he quoted repeatedly was Richard Lanham’s, Style: An Anti-Textbook, which seemingly aligns with ideals that Landon also adheres to such as, “Books do not teach style, they abolish it,” and, “Style should be taught for and what it is—a pleasure.”
After about a half an hour of background, Landon was able to explain how he teaches writing style: “I’m reducing my approach to the sentence,” he said.
Before the talk, Landon gave each person a 40-page printed manual with instructions and examples.At this point in the lecture, Landon began referencing this manual to instruct the audience.
His major point was that “longer sentences, when carefully crafted and tightly controlled, are essential keys to effective writing,” he said. Then for the remainder of his speech, he urged for the usage of the cumulative sentence as one of the ways to improve one’s writing style.
He did this by first defining what a sentence achieves. “The sentence is a proposition—a statement about reality that can be accepted or rejected,” he explained. Therefore, because the basic unit of writing is the proposition, what becomes essential are the, “ways we combine not words, but the way we combine these propositions those words stand for.”
He also acknowledged, “that we do not have a good vocabulary to talk about sentences or how they work,” which inherently perpetuates styleless writing.
Landon also stressed the related theme, that it is essential to understand why some writing captivates us while other types leave us unmoved: “The way the sentence unfolds and hits the reader is completely up to the writer,” he explained.
Although the talk was lengthy, it gave Landon the platform to remind the audience of something that is often forgotten in writing. “The way we say things may be more important than what is actually said,” he suggested.
Ultimately, though Landon discussed a few strategies for how to lengthen sentences and improve one’s writing, he mostly advocated for the cumulative sentence urging that it, “Gives us a chance to show our reader a mind at work.”