In Search of Perfect Sentences

Through the Osher Institute at the University of Richmond, from time to time my friend, Jan, teaches a class called “In Search of the Perfect Sentence.” Isn’t that just the best title?! I spend nearly as many hours reading as I spend writing, and often when I encounter a gem of a sentence or paragraph, I’ll pause to savor the words. Some stun me with their beauty or mesmerize me with their cadence, or just plain make me smile. And always, these writers challenge me to dig deeper to hone my craft.

From character-driven plots to organic settings and realistic dialogue, good books take so long to write that, come on, isn’t it nice when someone notices the effort? Here are a few of the awesome efforts that have recently kept me turning pages. In some cases, I’ve paused to read lines out loud. Try it. Try reading your own writing out loud. Does it flow? Will a reader pause and marvel at your word choice? Your phrasing? Your voice?

From Justin Torres‘ 2011We the Animals debut, We the Animals, which sings with a cadence all its own: “We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.”


From Sheila Turnage‘sThree Times Lucky Three Times Lucky, in which the language is real and funny and compelling: “Already I didn’t like him. Didn’t like the starch in his shirt, or the crease in his pants. Didn’t like the hook of his nose, or the plane of his cheekbones. Didn’t like the skinny of his hips, or the shine of his shoes. Mostly, I didn’t like the way he didn’t smile.”


From Virginia Pye‘s debut,River of Dust River of Dustjust out from Unbridled Books, in which the beautiful ending still haunts me: “As she continued to study him, a humming began in her head: a slight bothersome background murmur that was not altogether a noise but could grow to become one if she was not careful.”


From Robert Goolrick‘s debut, End of the Worlda memoir, The End of the World as We Know It, in which he plays with phrases in a most delicious way: “Now people wiped away tears when they imagined her sitting there again, so witty and pretty and chic, the way she had been before it all, or not before it all, but before it all got out of hand.”


From Louise Hawes‘ retellings Black Pearlsof fairy tales, Black Pearls: A Faerie Strand, in which classic characters from Rapunzel to Sleeping Beauty—characters we’ve taken for granted and thought we already knew—reemerge with cunning and complexity: “Yet clear as a stone dropped in a still pond, loud as the call of geese across the sky, I heard the music of my own heart. It played a stream burbling in the shade of apple trees, and the warm, solid thrum of waking bees.”


From Cori McCarthy‘s Color of Raindebut, The Color of Rain, in which she crafts the dystopian setting so organically that it’s oh-so-easy to suspend disbelief: “High above us, silver starships hang in invisible parking spots like stars lured too close to earth. Some are as large as skyscrapers while others are only big enough for a captain and crew, but they all gleam with blue light, the pulsing proof of their mighty engines… Engines that run the Void and weave between the stars. I’ve always been drawn to that blue…”


I’ve always been drawn to words and stories so perfectly crafted that the room I’m sitting in—or the airport or the screen porch or the treehouse—falls away and the literary magic transports me to another place. Ah, the encounter with perfect sentences…

6 thoughts on “In Search of Perfect Sentences”

  1. Anne, re: “Perfect Sentences….” I noticed your comment about reading sentences back to yourself. I do that, too. And my friend Fred Larmore, who’s working on a novel, does this: He gets his computer to read his writing back to him. I have yet to figure our how to do that, even though Fred’s told me at least three times. Think I’ll stick to real human voices rather that some disembodied Star-Wars wiki-digi-voice reading my stuff out loud.

  2. Rosemary – What a treat that you took Jan’s class! I just love talking literature with her.

    And Doug – I’ve met Fred at The Writing Show. So he gets his computer to read to him? That cracks me up. Does the computer have any sense of style… of drama… of cadence? Hahaha. I’ll opt for human voices, too, but hey–anything we can do to hear our writing afresh is a good thing. If the computer trips over a line, well, perhaps a human reader will trip there, too.

  3. Great post! I love these examples. This from Louise: “Yet clear as a stone dropped in a still pond, loud as the call of geese across the sky, I heard the music of my own heart.” So perfect. (Hey, I wonder when Jan is teaching that class again with Osher?)

  4. It’s such fun to see the sentences you picked out in these books, Anne! I’ve always wondered (maybe food for another blog) about the connection between music and writing. I can’t carry a tune, don’t play an instrument, so it seems that all my music comes out in words. Others reading this? Are you naturally musical?

  5. Gigi – Jan recently told me that she’d be teaching the class again soon, but I’m not sure when. We’ll have to check with her. Maybe this fall…?

    Louise – I love your question about music and writing. I’ve played a number of instruments over the years… but can’t say that I’m naturally musical any more than I can say that I am naturally a writer. For me, both are a discipline. I have to practice, and I’ve chosen writing over music because there are only so many hours in a day (and besides… I was mostly mediocre at music — but I can keep a beat, great!). I know a number of writers who happen to be musical… You’re right that this might be food for another blog post…

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