Idea #7: An Ode to the Sentence

Readers of Scrawled in Wax are likely familiar with Nieman Storyboard’s “Why’s This So Good?“, an ongoing feature which takes a work of long-form journalism and, well, tries to explain why it’s so good. It’s a brilliant bit of insider baseball because the vagaries of long form excellence – the narrative arc, those short, punctuated paragraphs that reveal fascinating tidbits, the careful restraint by which a writer often speaks through circumlocution – are difficult to tease out, even for experienced writers.

But what about the sentence? Sometimes, it is that basic unit of long form writing that can be so beautiful. The precision and care of the well-crafted sentence, after all, is writing. It is that fastidious love for the ordering of words — a la Jakobson’s view of poetry as an emphasis upon substitution rather than sequence — which makes writing an art.

Utterly awash in utterly banal language, I rarely have the patience for poetry or a poetic appreciation of language. But it was the following paragraph from Ta-Nehisi Coates that reminded me of something which I used to hold dear:

When your life is besieged, the music is therapy, vicarious mastery in a world where you control virtually nothing, least of all the fate of your body. I had a friend in middle school who would play Rakim every morning because he knew there was a good chance that he would be jumped en route to or from school by the various crews that roamed the area. But, in his mind, the mask of rap machismo made him too many for them.

It was that last clause which stopped me dead in my tracks. I mean, not too big, not too strong, not too tough — too many. What a brilliant turn of phrase, one that in just a fragment manages to evoke the dialectic of virtually projected image and the material body, and the aching desire for one pole of the binary to supersede the other.

So what about a “Why’s This So Good?” for the sentence – except rather sentences in fiction a la traditional literary analysis, we look at sentences in journalism, on social media, etc – i.e. the language that makes up our daily interaction with words.

I know I’ve talked a lot about Twitter over the years, but it’s always fascinated me to watch so many gifted writers work within the constraints of the medium, crafting and then re-crafting clauses to fit in that tiny space. Wouldn’t it be great to sit back and think about what makes the truly great ones work — what rhetorical devices produce what effect; of how the linearity of language can be used to conjure an expectation, only to have it reversed just a few words in; of how to foreground a particular ethos through vocabulary or tone; and what distinguishes the brilliant ‘standalone’ sentence to a tweet very much ‘of its time’, almost down to the minute?

But Jesus: too many for them. It’s that which is really the concern. How might we emulate the spirit of a sentence that does so much with so little?

Which is to say: how, as a swirl of forces constantly tugs at attention and soul, might we learn to say so much more with less?

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