Whenever I speak to a book group, I’m struck by how little attention they pay to the mechanics of writing, to the architecture and engineering of a novel, the nuts and bolts of sentences and paragraphs. I urge them to think about what makes a good sentence, a good paragraph, a good chapter ending, to analyse good writing and decide what makes it so.
For me a good sentence is both lucid and economical. To subtract a word or phrase would detract from its clarity, which comes from punctuation. Take this sentence for example: “Time flies we cannot so uncertain is their flight.” Punctuation makes sense of it. “Time flies? We cannot: so uncertain is their flight.”
Punctuation is the key to a well-constructed sentence, whatever its length. This opening sentence, from Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill”, has 182 words, yet is both clear and graceful:
“Considering how common illess is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s armchair and confuse his “Rinse the mouth, rinse the mouth” with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us – when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its palce with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”
Very long, very complex, completely comprehensible.