Life Sentences in “Writing Well”


            Too many authors of too many modern sentences shy from people and verbs and particulars, as though they were afraid of, or embarrassed by, or unfamiliar with the real world.  As though writing had to be abstracted from the world, even the world of business or governance or professional expertise they transact in writing: scholarship and science and law and commerce and banking and diplomacy and healthcare… the average modern sentence sounds like a cranky and awkward simulation of living, breathing sentence; there is no heartbeat in it.  (from Writing Well by Mark Tredinnick).

When I was in seminary preparing to become a pastor, I read a lot of theology books.  Unlike the classics of literature I had read in college as an undergraduate English major, I found much of the language of theology to be stale, dry, and lifeless.  Likewise I found that many of the lectures I attended would take the breath right out of me.  In one Old Testament class I started bringing my Bible and just reading the rich, prophetic language of Isaiah while the professor droned on about modern approaches to interpret the work.

I have experienced the lifeless sentences Tredinnick points to in many settings outside of academia as well.

–  At church board meetings where pointless debates arise while the real issues go unspoken.

–  At community focus groups where ideas that will never see the light of day are bantered about.

– In psychotherapy sessions where despair and suffering are given numerical labels from a diagnostic manuals for insurance purposes.

How can we rattle the dry bones of modern, sterile language and breathe life into sentences?  Tredinnick names 3 important steps –

            Make sure you:

–          put people in – particularly in the role of performing the verb (who)

–          use strong verbs – particularly the verb performed by the subject (does)

–          be very clear and concrete about exactly what is going on (what)

Good sentences are not always simple, but they are always clear.

Good sentences are not always easy to write, but they are always easy to read.

Good sentences take the dry bones of lifeless concepts and breathe life into them such that the begin to rattle, walk, run, even dance – for God’s sake.

(image “Sentences v2” from eldeeem, some rights reserved)

6 thoughts on “Life Sentences in “Writing Well”

  1. I think the best tip to pull your reader in is to snag his little head and pop it off, bang it on the floor so it cracks, rearrange the pieces in your skull and put it back.
    🙂 Details are the best.

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