Building Great Sentences {book review}

Related to my post earlier this week on the Hemingway app, I’d like to recommend a great book to you about writing effective, clear prose using longer sentences: Building Great Sentences: How to write the kinds of sentences you love to read, by Brooks Landon.

Building Great Sentences book cover

The main purpose of this book is demonstrating how longer sentences can be both effective and interesting to readers of all kinds. It is not meant to be revolutionary—just a simple observation about memorable writing. Right from the beginning, Landon tells us:

Strunk and White do a great job of reminding us to avoid needless words, but they don’t begin to consider all of the ways in which more words might actually be needed. (17)

Longer sentences can be more effective for arguing a point. This is why we often see longer sentences in academic or legal texts. By including as many logic steps within a single sentence as reasonably possible, you are less likely to be misquoted or misunderstood, and more likely to retain your reader’s attention for the duration of your argument. If you ever had to write mathematical proofs during high school, you’ll remember that each individual line of the proof on its own meant very little—it was only when you put all the parts together that you had something significant to say.

Leading transitions (which I’ll leave to Landon to explain) in this type of writing pull your reader from one step to the next, essentially allowing them to take your thought journey alongside you. This can reveal quite a lot about your personality, your beliefs, and your motivations. Done properly, it humanizes you you far better than any snappy, quick marketing copy could.

pulling someone in

Long sentences can actually be more pleasurable to read than shorter ones. They “tease, surprise, test and satisfy” the reader’s intellect (4). They require more concentration and more attention from the reader—with the reward of understanding something better at the end. Comparing short to long sentences is like comparing a quick walk to the mailbox to a half-day hike. Which would be the more memorable to you?

That said, Landon never advocates for incomprehensibility nor for verbosity. As he says,

The most effective prose establishes a relationship between writer and reader. (128)

He offers practical exercises at the end of every chapter for you to practice putting these principles to good use. He also touches on metaphor, rhythm, balance, and suspense—elements which help you form your own style and natural pauses for your readers to process information within a single sentence. Examples from both fiction and non-fiction, male and female authors, academic and popular commentary help balance out his thesis.

Landon offers a great reminder that most writers have very good reasons for crafting sentences a certain way — even the longer, more convoluted ones. And if translated correctly, you can help that author their original thought into effective language for the target audience.

If you work with academic, legal, scientific, or other higher-level texts on a regular basis, I highly recommend Building Great Sentences as a way to improve how you analyze your source texts and transfer the original author’s decision to your translation. Your work can only benefit from understanding this aspect of language better.

Building Great Sentences book cover

Click here to purchase a copy of Building Great Sentences: How to write the kinds of sentences you love to read, by Brooks Landon.

Have you read this book before? What do you think of Landon’s ideas? What other books can you recommend for writers or translators who want to improve their work?


2 thoughts on “Building Great Sentences {book review}

  1. Top notch book review!

    I never thought of it this way but it’s true (who can argue?) that long sentences can be highly effective in legal or academic texts or even in a context where you need to be sure you have made a point without having to continue the argument in the sentences that follow.

    And that was a long sentence! I was going to put a full stop somewhere but then decided not to do it on purpose. 🙂

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