📕 Book Name

First You Write a Sentence

I loved this book. Will love this book again, because I know I'm going to read it again. And then probably again after that. Moran's two hundred page treatise on the process of writing and re-writing is meatier than you would expect. Every few pages serve you a meal, a new way to think about reading or writing: how active is the voice? Remember punctuation? Does this make sense? Moran shows you the importance of these questions, and the consequences of (not) adhering to them. I think this book does a superb job at explaining and dissecting written communication which, like a lot of human rules, are real but unspoken. It's not a dry style guide. Moran appeals to emotion and common sense to make his points, peppering his rationale with quotes and examples. More people should read this book, even if they "only" write e-mails, press-releases, statements, love letters, long instagram captions, or anything else longer than a few sentences.

The thesis running through this book sounds something like "consider your sentences carefully and you'll probably write better". Although the book zooms in (to grammar, and Part of Speech) and out (to paragraphs and narratives) it always returns home, to sentences. A good essay, to me, draws your full attention to something overlooked or undervalued, but which is full of life and worthy of consideration. Examine something and, invariably, you'll see beauty or beauty reflected. Fortunately, a good sentence doesn't hide its reward behind expertise or mental gymnastics. Sentences can be intuitively seen as good or bad, and your reader will be judging them. The pleasing-ness of a particularly rhythmic, expressive, or concise sentence is something most readers would notice. Stephen King reportedly wrote The Gunslinger, his magnum opus, from the first sentence: "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed", one of the finer opening lines. So by considering the quality of our sentences, we begin to improve our writing from the grass-roots up.

Writing a book on how to write must be daunting. You're describing a medium in that medium, so you've got nowhere to hide. By the end of the first chapter I was convinced that Moran had enough craft and flare to keep me invested, and that feeling didn't change. This is the first Moran book I have read, however, so I cannot speak for the quality of his entire portfolio. There's some truth to "those who cannot do, teach", but any trace of that is scent is overpowered by the waves of unconditional passion for writing and language that roll off this work. Moran fulfils the eccentric-university-lecturer stereotype we often see more in American media (we quite like grizzled and pessimistic educators here). There are times when you can hear him delivering these ideas in front of a whiteboard in a room built and decorated in the sixties, complete with grey-blue-black worn carpet. He's informed enough to be useful, and impassioned enough to make sure you know exactly why you're being taught something. The ideal traits of a Higher Education educator, which Moran is.

The book is set out across seven chapters, though each chapter is almost self-contained. The book moves from a general introduction of the book's thesis, to the more detailed grammatical and linguistic specifics, before opening back up to the implications and power of a good sentence. This seems like a sensible structure, it's possible to come back to the forty or fifty pages at a later date, and dig into something again. However, even at only two hundred pages long, it does make certain passages or ideas hard to re-find. This is a problem easily remedied by scribbled underlinings and notes in the margin, but it is frustrating if you want to revisit something but aren't sure where exactly it is. I suppose this is the price of a more intuitive, rather than ontological structure for the book. The book is narrow in scope - the chapters aren't vastly different enough to be truly distinguishable. Each chapter is a meal best enjoyed whole, and not in bits. Even so, I would recommend no more than a chapter a day - a lot of these ideas need time to percolate.

Moran strikes a difficult balance here: does he act as provost for platitudes, which the reader must take and apply as she sees fit, or does he provide us with the certainty of syntax, edge-cases, and rules. Too far into generalities and you're not actually offering anything useful, and you risk sounding self-aggrandising and vague. Too far into the specifics you've lost the more creative, or fresher, crowds. Reading, and to a lesser extent writing, are intuitive acts - by waylaying out readers and writers with rules, you're sucking the joy out of the acts. The best way I can can describe the effect of reading this book is the introduction of a little voice at the back of my head whenever I am writing, and sometimes when I am reading. The little voice chirps along to Moran's ideas of good writing: that we can't assume the reader is interested or invested, we must explain ourselves, we can use active voice, sentence length, and order of clauses (claus-der?) to make sentences clearer. Or conversely we could use our new found powers to obscure and bore.

Broader than that, Moran has given me an appreciation for the sentence. I wouldn't be so bold as to say I'm never going to write a mediocre or bad sentence again in my life. That's obviously going to happen, probably daily. But when I put the book down (surprisingly long after I picked it up), I felt convinced that no single sentence should go into my writing un-interrogated. The sentence might not actually be the purest, platonic ideal of writing, but it's important. At the meta-level, I adore the careful consideration of something so singular. The result tells you about the object of study and the person doing the studying, so this book packs twice the delight. Learning the process is more actionable than learning the product. The result is one of the clearest, most actionable, and impassioned calls for better writing from someone who just wants there to be better writing. 4.5⭐