Review of Joe Moran’s ‘First you write a sentence’

This book should come with a warning label: ‘May cause paralysis from information overload’. I found a lot in this book useful, particularly for poetry which often runs in a few short sentences. But it’s unusual because it mixes together technical advice with long anecdotes about the history of writing, with no clear delineation between them. I found myself torn between relaxing into a story, and jotting down notes with a creased brow as the advice unfolded. 

The advice in the book is detailed, but not always straightforward. Rather than rules such as ’never use the passive voice’, Moran suggests avoiding the passive, but then includes examples when the passive voice adds value to a text. This book could easily be paired with an accompanying ‘how to write’ guide including exercises to demonstrate the suggestions he covers. Given that, this is not a good book for beginner writers. The information is so rich that at some point I became paranoid that I knew nothing about writing and should give it up completely.

This is a great book for writers who have learned in the 21st Century style, with very little training on the structure of a sentence. I was taught by reading a lot, and writing by instinct and feel. Because I already had a grasp on sentence structure I was accelerated into classes that skipped the fundamentals. Later I learned that universities were considering bringing grammar back into courses because it was no longer being taught correctly. I’ve read a lot about how to write for the corporate world, how to write in plain language, and how to write for the web, but I have never considered how many nouns I use compared to verbs or where they are in the sentence structure. 

This is also a book that is difficult to forget. The language and the advice are rich and lasting.

Some things I hope will stay with me:

– Your writer’s voice is not your voice. There are many quotes about a writer’s voice, but it is your voice with more clarity, designed to convince. Keep sentences clear, speak plainly and confidently.

– Cut out words wherever you can, particularly adverbs and adjectives. This is old advice from ‘The elements of style’ and the root of the advice still stands. Moran expands upon this by saying that they are sometimes useful, but review them to see if they’re superfluous.

– Vary sentence length between long and short, but avoid big and complex sentences. If you are going to write a complex sentence, keep the subject and verb near the start of the sentence so you don’t leave the audience hanging

– If you use long sentences, make the link between parts plain using parataxis – a simple ‘and’ between parts rather than ‘since’ or ‘while’. Like the use of the term ‘said’ as a speech tag, it is more readable.

– The definition of mediopassive. Mediopassive sentences look passive but is when the subject becomes the object. “This butter melts on the tongue…” This is used in advertising a lot as it highlights the subject. Passive sentences can be used sparingly but usefully to highlight a subject.

– Think about root words, and try to use them as often as possible for simplicity. The root of the word ‘Beginning’ is ‘Begin, for example.

– Use more verbs than nouns, or at least watch for the overuse of nouns. Verbs mean action, nouns mean things. The overuse of nouns reduces clarity and in corporate speak reduces responsibility. “Nominalisation” is the term for words that take verbs and turn them into nouns. They are used in academia and assume prior knowledge. Terms like these include all the “ivity” and “ism” words, and also words like “governance” and “reification”. Moran criticises what he calls ‘nouny’ language and suggests adding more verbs and propositions.

– “When words are too general, they create inadequate pictures” – consider nouns on a ladder from concrete to abstract. Think ‘brick’ or ‘dog’ vs ‘love’. Some writers see it is our duty to ground language in the concrete to bring us closer to the real world, but a mixture of concrete and abstract is the best mix, Moran thinks

– Moran spends a chapter talking about the quality simple language in Tyndale’s bible. One tip is that one long sentence amongst short ones has weight.

– Longer words at the start and end of sentences have weight

– Note that words are still sounded aloud in our heads, so short words are better. ‘Schwa’ is the term for the weak unstressed sound most commonly used in the English language. The start of ‘alone’ is schwa. When in the middle of a longer word, it makes the word sound weak. Tyndale’s bible contains very little schwa.

– Vowels have more emotional resonance or poetic weight than consonants. In singing you will note that it’s the vowels that are stretched out. There is also weight in the lengths of diphthongs, which extend a vowel sound. In some longer words, however, vowel sounds are cut short which reduces their emotional impact. 

– Tyndale’s bible uses polyptoton. This is using the same word in a different way – for example ‘give us this day our daily bread’. Moran muses that as writer’s we’re schooled in removing repetition but Tyndale uses it to great effect with polyptoton and parallel patterns – repeating the start of sentences, for instance. 

– Moran also looks at the history of epigrams, from one of the first forms of the written word, through to the resurgence in motivational quotes today. This is relevant to me as a poet active on Instagram, where the motivational quote influences a wave of short poetry. He notes that the appeal of the epigram is that it is somehow both intimate and impersonal.

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