Me write pretty one day
June 1, 2014 2:47 PM   Subscribe

How do I craft beautiful sentences?

Hey askmefi,

I love to write, and I think I can write quite clearly and express myself so as to be understood by the reader. However, I don't know how to write beautifully, and I want to be able to touch people not only with ideas but also with the artistic impact of the things I write. I've just always wanted to, and have no idea where to start. Other than to practise. (Reading things I like, and writing things out). Are there any more specific tiips?

Thank you!
posted by dinosaurprincess to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
Read whatever you write aloud - verbalizing your writing will help you identify what flows, what sounds awkward, etc.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 2:50 PM on June 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

In English, use the hit-you-in-the-gut words that come from German more than the not-as-hardcore words that come from French/Latin.
posted by johngoren at 2:52 PM on June 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Like Temple Grandin, my oldest son thinks in pictures. This kind of causes some communication difficulties because he has to translate English into pictures to understand what he reads or what was said to him and then translate pictures back into English to express what he thinks. It is a little like speaking to someone who speaks English as a second language. We sometimes get issues where something was apparently "lost in translation" in the way he misunderstood something I said.

Because of this quirk of his, I have gotten in the habit of using very visual metaphors when I speak. It helps the communication process with him and reduces the incidence of weird misunderstandings. It is so habitual, it tends to show up in my writing. I suspect this is part of why some people find my writing evocative and powerful.

So I will suggest you consider going heavy on the visual kinds of words and metaphors to convey your meaning.
posted by Michele in California at 3:01 PM on June 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Read authors you admire; specifically, pick writers who you really admire and analyze their prose style. To what purpose do they write short sentences or long sentences? Where do they use adjectives? Where do they use adverbs? Take entire paragraphs and mark the stressed and unstressed syllables -- are they writing deliberately rhythmic or deliberately unrhythmic prose?

When you find an interesting prose style, whether you like it or not, try to imitate it, perhaps for just a couple of paragraphs.

John Gardner's "The Art of Fiction" is a really good book for this.
posted by Jeanne at 3:05 PM on June 1, 2014

Joseph M. William's book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace is an excellent guide to how to write clearly and elegantly. For some bizarre reason the University of Chicago Press let it go out of print. There's a textbook edition with exercises, but I prefer the Chicago edition. Used copies are readily available.
posted by brianogilvie at 3:11 PM on June 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

It might help to study rhetoric. Sit down and do some exercises in internal rhythm, assonance, metaphor and such until you feel comfortable with turning them out.

Take some writing that you think of as pretty and break it apart looking for the rhetoric in it. Why is the piece pretty? Is there word choices that create strong imagery? Internal rhythms? Is it the subject matter?

Shakespeare was wonderful at rhetoric. If you don't have a ready list of favorite authors whose prose you can examine take a look at something like one his sonnets and figure out what he did to make his writing pretty.

For example:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

He's describing growing old but rather than describing - "I look like nothing so much as an iguana" (Vonnegut - effective but not pretty writing) Shakespeare brings in the images of a tree and of birds, both things commonly agreed to be attractive to look at. He describes the leaves as yellow instead of say, brown or withered. The list, yellow leaves, none, few is given in simple words but each one makes his point stronger, going, going, going... The boughs are shaking against the cold, personifying the tree. Choirs are another thing that is beautiful. The birds are sweet, another simple word; Each of those three words sweet, birds, sang has an ss to provide sibilance. Many of his words are pretty words, not guttural, tough, coarse words but round, soft words like behold, yellow, none, cold... L's and D's and O's.

Read lots of pretty writing. It will rub off.
posted by Jane the Brown at 3:28 PM on June 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Seconding "The Art of Fiction"! It's one of my favorites. Also, this book by Harry Bauld is more for college essays, but I've always thought that it was a good guide to writing in general.

Perhaps focusing on creating metaphors and juxtapositions in your writing would help heighten its impact. Or, you could make your writing more vivid by practicing some writing exercises where the sole goal is to describe something in terms of senses: smell, sight, touch, hearing... you don't even have to write out an entire paragraph-- sometimes simply mapping/linking images and ideas and adjectives together can be enough.

That said, do not over-use adjectives. Adjectives very quickly become a drag on any otherwise good piece of writing. Reading your writing aloud is a good way to gauge clarity and eloquence. :)
posted by gemutlichkeit at 3:30 PM on June 1, 2014

1) Seconding Lanham. Revising Prose is also good -- more about clarity than beauty. Lanham will help you to reflect explicitly on skills you already have. Clarity and beauty are friends to each other!

2) Read poetry; read it aloud, for the sounds and for really getting down how the thoughts, sentiments and meanings of the poem are manifest in the syntax and the rhythms. This happens in prose too.

3) Write poetry in verse. To practice and imitate, but also because in writing poetry you may find something out about yourself and what beauty really is that will provide the basis to call it forth in your life at large. And thus in your prose too.
posted by bertran at 3:38 PM on June 1, 2014

1) Read a lot of authors who are really amazing at crafting beautiful sentences (for me, personally, that means people like AS Byatt, Alan Hollinghurst, Michael Cunningham, and David Mitchell. Poetry is great - Keats, TS Eliot and Yeats work for me. You will probably have a different list). Look at how they work their sentences and then look at how their sentences combine in paragraphs. Underline sentences that really grab you and try to figure out why those sentences affect you.

2) Write a lot and prepare to rewrite and rewrite. Some writers can churn out beautiful prose. Most writers have to work hard to get to that stage.

3) Learn the nuts & bolts of your craft. Yes, that means getting to grips with nouns, verbs, verbal phrases, subordinate clauses and the different types of adverbs. You want to understand your tools, right? Words are your tools.

4) Get peer reviews but ask for specific feedback (compare "You start a lot of sentences in the same way" vs "I liked what you said about the whales in that piece"). Local writing groups are great - local college writing groups are even better.

For what it's worth, I used to teach writing workshops at university. Possibly the best thing that ever happened to my own prose.
posted by kariebookish at 3:47 PM on June 1, 2014

I find a lot of ideas and rules-of-thumb by listening to the narration in Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds - it's a musical that took an already-decently-written novel "War of the Worlds" and had to distill all of that writing down to the barest and simplest of fragments for the moments of narration between the music. I'm always impressed at how much is communicated so evocatively with such simplicity in so few words.
It's the simplicity that makes it instructive to me - it's less mysterious how the writer is achieving the effect once you focus on it - use of language that is superb, but achievable.
posted by anonymisc at 3:56 PM on June 1, 2014

Jane is right: The best way to learn to write beautiful prose is to read beautiful writing. A lot of it.

And this recent item will be of interest.
posted by megatherium at 5:32 PM on June 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Strongly second brianogilvie's recommendation of Style. It starts with an incredibly approachable breakdown of structures that differentiate clumsy or confusing writing from clear writing. From that foundation, it addresses the skills and strategies of good, graceful writing.

Didn't know it was out of print, but still easy to find cheap on Amazon. (Including link under the assumption mefi gets some referrer dough. If that's inappropriate, someone let me know and I'll edit.)
posted by novelgazer at 7:59 PM on June 1, 2014

Who was it said "read and reread the masters, once you've decided who they are"?
posted by zadcat at 7:43 AM on June 2, 2014

Read this!
How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish.
posted by ZipRibbons at 10:58 AM on June 2, 2014

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