Eva van Emden (she/her), freelance editor

Certified copy editor and proofreader


November 22, 2010

The art of the sentence

During the Memory Festival that took place last week at the Roundhouse in Yaletown, I attended a workshop taught by Stephen Osborne, columnist and publisher of Geist Magazine, on “The Art of the Sentence,” because I thought if I could get better at creating and understanding this essential building block it would make me a better writer and editor.

We discussed a number of common sentence faults, which was certainly useful, but the most interesting ideas in the workshop, for me, were:
  1. Long sentences—really long sentences—can be good. For example:
    “When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal, and the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct, programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever heard sung and all the stories I had ever read about New York, informed me that it would never be quite the same again.” —Joan Didion, Goodbye to All That
    We were all taught in elementary school that “a sentence is a complete thought,” and after many years, apparently that’s a lesson worth revisiting. The sentence should keep going until you’ve completed the thought.
  2. The 5-W sentence as the foundation of narrative. The “5-W” sentence contains who, what, when, where, and why. He recommended that you use one of these sentences to begin the story and then whenever the story makes a turn, or when you’re getting stuck and don’t know where to go next. The Geist writer’s toolbox explains that they reject a lot of stories because they contain too much description and not enough story, and I think the 5-W sentence is a way to force you to write narrative instead of description.
  3. He also emphasized writing to satisfy your ear, and that you should read your work aloud to test it.
For more on these and other writing techniques, see the excellent Writer’s Toolbox put out by Geist magazine.

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