I was a pretty terrible Creative Writing student, insofar as only ever reading one book on creative theory during university. That book was not, as you may expect, On Writing by Stephen King. It was on every module’s reading list, but I returned my library copy practically unopened. Being a stubborn, petulant twenty year old, I had convinced myself that the theorisation of creativity was reductive.
In my second year, I went abroad for the first time, to Prague. I fell in love with the city, and with one of my closest friends who happened to be on the trip with me. Then I returned to Bath alone. Hundreds of miles from him, and hundreds more from Prague, I clawed at anything Czech, desperate to maintain that connection. At the recommendation of one of my English Lit lecturers, I took The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera out of the library. What an idiot I was, to ignore works on theory. What an ignoramus.
To give an idea of the effectiveness of First You Write a Sentence, I am terrified to write this review. What if I write a dud sentence? What if all of my sentences are, and have always been, duds? Perhaps I am a fraud. There were many desperate realisations of “oh, God, I do that!” when encountering Joe Moran’s advice on what not to do. Moran does not, however, decry us as bad writers or imbeciles for falling into the traps of being too “nouny,” too explanatory, or of writing indigestibly lengthy Dickensian sentences. Rather, like any good Creative Writing lecturer, he patiently shows us with glittering examples how to avoid these issues. He understands the process which leads to a dull sentence, because, he admits, he has followed that process himself. “I should be more forgiving,” he writes on page 10, “having written my fair share of dull sentences. I am not.”
As I am sure you have gathered, First You Write a Sentence encourages writers to no longer look at writing as minutely as word by word, or as widely as paragraph by paragraph or chapter by chapter, but sentence by sentence. We are offered advice that we have heard before – keep your paragraphs short, watch your sentence length, read your work out loud, be mindful of lexical choices, don’t hold your reader’s hand but don’t leave them in a wilderness which they cannot hope to navigate – with a refreshingly novel perspective. He also encourages readers, and by extension writers, to be less scrutinising of smaller issues: on word repetition, for example, he muses on page 179 that “capable writers vary words too much, unaware that the reader can live with a lot of repetition.”
A particularly enjoyable insight of Moran’s was that relating to academic writing. During my Undergrad, we were told quite sternly to never, ever, under any circumstances, use “in this essay I will.” When I began my Masters, at an institution more recognised for its standards, I was appalled when we were told the exact opposite. Finding that Moran shared my frustration with writing standards within the academy was comforting. It is often assumed that, in order to be a good writer in theory, one needs to circumnavigate an unattainable tightrope of blandness, always in the middle. Moran rubbishes this. He shows that as long as you write well, and as long as every sentence reads naturally and is well constructed, you cannot fail.
Every sentence in First You Write a Sentence is, as would be expected, wonderful to read, alive with an intelligent, gently smiling wit. But every sentence is also informative and encouraging, and, as much as I am loathe to admit, made me think about my own writing differently. I am stubborn as a pig, so for me to change my tune is an achievement on its own. It is also well equipped for short bursts of advice in times of need, including a section at the back of the book dedicated to twenty ‘Sentences on Sentences,’ an extensive chapter by chapter bibliography and extra further reading, and an index, again for those urgent moments where just a little encouragement may spur us on.
Any Cop?: First You Write A Sentence marks the second book on creative theory I’ve ever read. I dropped Creative Writing in my third year to focus solely on Lit, so writing guides fell from my priorities. However, if the result of desaturating my consumption of such works rewards me in so far as I only end up reading good writing guides, I can’t promise to change my habits.
- The boy I fell in love with in Prague is on his way home from work as I write this, just in case any one was wondering what happened to him.