First You Write a Sentence: The Elements of Reading, Writing… and Life by Joe Moran - review by Henry Hitchings

Henry Hitchings

Grammar Schooling

First You Write a Sentence: The Elements of Reading, Writing… and Life


Viking 229pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

In Jonathan Lethem’s short story ‘The King of Sentences’, the narrator is a young New Yorker who works in a bookshop. Dismayed by the stylistic limitations of text messages and graffiti, he cherishes writing that feels as if it’s been carved like a sculpture. He and his girlfriend revere one writer above all, feasting on his prose by candlelight. When they meet the man they’ve anointed as the sultan of the sub-clause, he’s a disappointment, but that doesn’t mean they renounce their passionately narrow reading habits.

In the eyes of social historian Joe Moran, such reverence is far from absurd. After all, in the age of email and social media ‘more people than ever are writing sentences’ and we should take pains over them, because they are ‘the granular element that must be got right or nothing will be right’. His new book is both a love letter to the sentence and a ‘style guide by stealth’ which, he hopes, will ‘hearten, embolden and galvanize the reader’. He has form as an analyst of neglected subjects – queuing, shyness, milk bars – but here he enters terrain that’s been explored by the likes of Natalie Goldberg, Anne Lamott, Steven Pinker and Stephen King. While he has plenty of fresh insights, the ground is well trodden.

Moran acknowledges his debts to good writers (William Tyndale, Virginia Woolf) and theorists of good writing (Roland Barthes, Virginia Tufte). He offers crisp explanations of technical terms such as nominalisation and hypotaxis, along with practical advice: ‘Many accidental sound jangles are solved by reading your sentences aloud’; ‘Shorten

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