Book Review by Raymond M. Wong
Klinkenborg, Verlyn. Several Short Sentences About Writing. New York: Random House, 2012. Print.
Verlyn Klinkenborg knows a few things about writing. He earned a Ph.D. in English literature from Princeton, and he has authored a number of books. He is on the editorial board of the New York Times and he is a creative writing instructor.
Klinkenborg demonstrates crisp, clear prose in Several Short Sentences About Writing. His book is straightforward, direct, and takes the form of a prose poem sustained over 150 pages. A former creative writing professor suggested the book to me because it changed her thoughts about how writing should be taught, and I can see why it impressed her so much.
Klinkenborg advocates for short sentences. He states that “long sentences often tend to collapse or break down or become opaque or trip over their awkwardness. They’re pasted together with false syntax and rely on words like ‘with’ or ‘as’ to lengthen the sentence.”
Short sentences are easier to control and dissect. Klinkenborg: “Every word is optional until it proves essential, something you can only determine by removing words one by one.”
He encourages writers to experiment with words: sound, rhythm, shape, spacing, and implication. He isn’t bound to rules and grammarians may cringe when Klinkenborg begins a sentence with the word “And,” and tells the reader it’s perfectly okay to do so.
This author takes issue with contemporary writing instruction: “Nothing in your education has taught you that what you notice is important. And if you do notice something that interests you, it doesn’t have much to do with anything you’ve ever been asked to write. But everything you notice is important.”
Klinkenborg counters the belief that good sentences should pour out of the writer onto the page in an inspired burst of spontaneity. He says this is a dangerous myth that leads many writers to feel inadequate or blocked because they don’t experience a wellspring of creativity every time they sit down at their desk. The truth is that writing is hard work and always has been.
Writers who struggle with how to start a story will find guidance in this book: “Look for a sentence that interests you. A sentence that might begin the piece. You’re holding an audition. Many sentences will try out. One gets the part. You’ll recognize it less from the character of the sentence itself than from the promise it contains—promise for the sentences to come.”
In one of the most engaging and insightful sections of this book, Klinkenborg provides excerpts from John McPhee, George Orwell, Guy Davenport, Joan Didion, and others. He asks the reader to notice how these writers choose specific words for effect, rhythm, pacing, and variation.
Then Klinkenborg entertains by revealing the writing errors made by his students. He gives laugh-out-loud critiques of why these sentences are weak and, in some cases, horrendous: “It is especially nice to sit there in the evening, when the sun has just set or is in the process of setting.”
Critique: “Or is only a few minutes away from beginning the process of setting or perhaps even beginning the process of just having finished setting. Simplify: when the sun is setting. That’s enough.”
Word use faux pas: “Melissa later told me that a random man offered her $800 to spank him.”
Critique: “Whatever you think of this man, he was certainly not random. He was the very man who was going to offer Melissa $800 to spank him. ‘Random’ has an actual meaning, and this is not it.”
Unnecessary word: “Erica wobbled uncertainly as she tried to sit down on the stool next to me.”
Critique: “Can one wobble certainly? ‘Uncertainly’ is implicit in ‘wobble’ and ‘tried.’ An example of the kind of redundancy that adverbs often create.”
Word confusion: “Her hair, dyed black, is neatly quaffed.”
Critique: “A delightful sentence if the author means that her hair is easily imbibed. The word is ‘coiffed.’ This problem is easily solved by using the dictionary.”
Wrong verb: “Grimy rinds of snow still squat along the northern walls of buildings.”
Critique: “ ‘Grimy rinds of snow’ is good. But look what the word ‘squat’ does. It animates the already metaphorical ‘rinds.’ In regular life, rinds don’t squat.”
The critiques alone make this book worth the price of purchase.