Sep 092013

This week, at the National Post in Toronto as part of the build up to the publication of Savage Love, I am writing a series of very short essays on, well, writing. Mostly about writing sentences. Here is a teaser for the first; it was just published this morning.

English was my worst subject (next to Health) in high school right through to my second year of university when I stopped taking English. I’d fallen afoul of the empty rule syndrome. Don’t use the pronoun “I” in an essay; don’t begin sentences with “but” or “because”; write paragraphs to the topic sentence-body text-conclusion pattern (even if it bores you to death to say the same thing three times); vary sentence structure. The trouble with these rules is that no one told me why any of them would be especially useful.

Vary sentence structure was a rule I puzzled over for years. No one explained grammar to me well enough to make a connection. At first I thought, well, I can write long and short sentences, something like Hemingway. Then I practiced emphatic placement of important material (at the beginning or the end of the sentence, I was told) and inversion (writing the sentence backwards — kind of fun). None of this got me anywhere because I could not connect the spirit of a sentence, what emotional and factual impact I intended, with the idea of sentence structure.

I puzzled through instruction books. I discovered the wonderful distinctions between simple, compound and complex sentences and the even more mysterious cumulative and periodic sentences. I practiced writing periodic sentences until I was blue in the face without actually being able to discover how that made them interesting for readers. They weren’t very interesting to me. And my stories did not seem any better for having good topic sentence paragraphs, long and short sentences, and a scattering of lovely periodic sentences.

The rules were still inanimate, void of life. The nexus of intention and form escaped me. Above all the whole idea that you had to know what you were going to write before you wrote it was like a lock on my soul. It made writing drudgery.

Read the rest here: Douglas Glover: Building sentences


  6 Responses to “Douglas Glover: Building sentences | National Post”

  1. When teaching tries to make a subject simple enough for the simplest student, it all becomes boring for everyone. I have always loved the way your but-constructions introduce (or can introduce) conflict without bloodshed.

  2. The drama of grammar! My favorite lecture, reduced like a fine sauce.
    Speaking of “but-constructions” …

    “Glover presented himself as a cold and exigent taskmaster, but on closer acquaintance I found him to be endearingly modest and warm-hearted.”

  3. That’s why when my students say they don’t know what to write at first I tell them to leave some space and come back to it later 🙂

  4. Writing first drafts while following a set of rules is pretty much always a mistake–a form of self-censorship. Rules can be useful, but more (perhaps) as guidelines to use in revising what one has first dashed off.

    I was struck by Mr. Glover’s mention of trying to write long and short sentences like Hemingway. I was struck by this because I have just recently read an essay, “The Short Sentence as Gospel Truth,” about the power of short sentences when they are set in a context of longer sentences.

    What I always wonder is: do writers know how to employ the power of the short sentence from long experience of reading and long practice of writing, or do writers consciously decide “I need a short sentence here.” Or is it a mixture of both following the dictates of one’s ‘ear’, and conscious choice?

  5. Wheeeee! Reading a sentence that kicks round like that is like riding on the back of some kind of long-spined flying dragon: she whips you round a corner you didn’t even know was there, and lo, how the view is grown…excellent essay DG!

  6. Stealing this terrific essay for my writing and rhetoric class.

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