Joe Moran: First You Write a Sentence

Less of a style guide and more of a love letter, Moran’s book explores the craft of composing sentence by sentence. “A good trick, when drafting a piece, is to press enter after every sentence, as if you were writing a poem and each full stop marked a line break.” He advises, “This renders the varied (or unvaried) lengths of your sentences instantly visible.” Through his thoughtful observation of Frank Sinatra’s singing and Bill Evans’s playing, Moran illustrates how rhythm, cadence, phrasing, and flow bring your sentences to life. He offers helpful tips such as using plain words, setting type that makes your writing visible to yourself, and keeping a sentence succinct even a long one. I dig his beautiful, poetic prose even though his florid style gets tedious at times. This book is enjoyable. I’ll definitely read it again at a slower pace to fully absorb his advice.

Here are a few notable passages:

On death (p.112):

[T]he death of a sentence is as natural as the end of life. Every sentence must die so the next one can begin. A full stop should offer a good death: natural, painless, clarifying, renewing.

On caring (p.117):

With a full stop, a sentence becomes self-supporting. It can go out into the world without the author leaning over the reader to clarify its meaning—without a reader, even, except a conjectural one. Writing a sentence well involves caring, taking pains for the benefit of others. But it is a special kind of caring: not the empathetic concern we have for people we love, but care for the anonymous humanity that may, at some future point, encounter the evidence of our presence in the world. This kid of care does not seek thanks or feedback, but offers itself up for all to enjoy, or ignore, as they wish.

On Sinatra (p.135-136)

A phraseologist like Sinatra overlays the meter with something like confiding in speech. He is all about the lyrics—you can hear him enunciate every syllable—and it feels as if he is saying as well as singing them to you, stretching out and twisting the pitch of words as we do in speech. Sinatra sings in sentences.

On flow (p.175):

Beauty may look after herself, but flow in writing does not. Flow should feel natural but almost never is. It arrives only after the way has been carefully cleared and paved. Flowing sentences are forward-facing, drawing what they need from the previous sentence and then setting up the next one.

On cadence (p.182):

Writing gets much of its rhythm from its full stops—or, more precisely, its cadences. Cadence is is used generally to mean the rising and falling rhythm of writing. But it has a more precise meaning. A cadence is what comes in writing, speech or music at the end of each phrase. In music, a phrase is the smallest unit able to make sense of its own. And it ends at this point of half repose, a cadence, where it feels as if the music has, just for a moment, arrived somewhere, usually back at the piece’s tonal center. In speech, a cadence is the fall in pitch at a natural stopping point, the end of a phrase. The voice drops on the last three syllables: a descending tritone. The American poet Amy Lowell called the cadence a “rhythmic curve … corresponding roughly to the necessity of breathing.”