Crafting Great Sentences

Professor Brooks Landon offers a college level course called “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft” at The University of Iowa, but this entire course is available on CD or DVD through The Great Courses website (

Actually, I found the CD set at my local library.

Predicting that a 12 hour lecture series on writing sentences could only be excruciating, I checked out the series merely to satisfy my skepticism. Not only was I wrong, but the series became a paradigm shifting inspiration that has forever changed the way I write and think about crafting my sentences.

I should mention that, although a literature teacher, I hate studying grammar which, in my opinion, takes all the life out of that which I love. Studying The Great Gatsby’s grammar kills Gatsby more completely than any deranged husband ever could. Thankfully, Landon’s lectures avoid grammar jargon while his passion for excellent writing and his fabulous literary examples are omnipresent.

If you are serious about improving your own writing—no matter the genre— check out this series (at your library or at the website. *Sometimes the website will offer this course at a substantial discount! Check back if it is too pricey right now!).

I’ll give one example of how this course changed the way I write: Landon discusses the concept that we should think about sentences in terms of their suspensiveness: the degree to which the sentence is suspenseful. While some sentences should be short and pack sudden punch, Landon has convinced me that long sentences that unfold, phrase by phrase, word after word, can be the most powerful, descriptive, compelling, and interesting.

Consider this example: “He emerged from the study as one breaking through the frozen lake’s ice, gasping for air, struggling for survival, for the conversation had done more than take his breath, it had hit him in his soul, his mind and sense of identity reeling with that surprising and most fortunate revelation.”

Note that until that last word we have no idea what the sentence is really going to say or where it will take us. The last word truly is a “revelation” because the sentence only comes together once it is divulged. This attribute is what gives the sentence its suspensiveness and keeps us interested in it up until the last word.

Now, for added fun, try substituting out that last word for another and see how it makes us reconsider the entire sentence.

  • Replace “revelation” with “freedom,” for example, and we have to interpret the entire sentence differently because while we don’t know what the conversation was about, we get that the news is good in the sense that it opens things up for him.
  • Replace “revelation” with “humiliation” and we have some idea what the conversation was about.

Some of the very best suspensive sentences make the reader do a kind of whiplash double-take; we are lead in one direction only to have the carpet ripped out from under our feet by the very last word which changes everything that came before.

Unless you are a grammarian, you must still be skeptical about the value of this course. I can’t blame you. After all, I was sure it was something I’d find boring and would never finish . . . until I pressed play and gave it a shot.

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