Sentence by Sentence

Monday, August 08, 2016
“Give the reader a single sentence, and they should know by the voice that it was written by you.”

I remember getting this advice, or something very similar, when I was a brand new writer. As a result, I agonized over my writing. How could I make each and every sentence sound like me?

I thought of this exercise again when I saw a Facebook challenge. It was originally posted for National Book Week, which has since come and gone, but it is the sort of thing that writers love. The challenge: Grab the nearest book and go to page 56, then type the 5th sentence in the comments section. You aren’t supposed to tell the title or author of the book.

Admittedly, I had to finagle mine a bit. The closest book to me, Living Fossils: Clues to the Past, was a picture book with only 36 pages. Instead, I grabbed the one I'm currently reading.

My sentence? “I did it.” (Sentence 1)

That’s not a ton to work with when using it to identify the author’s voice, tone, and more.
So I grabbed up another book and found this sentence -- “‘Hairlock?’” (Sentence 2)

Seriously? That’s not a whole lot better. What would I get if I tried 5 more books?

“And not after June 19 – the day the bill prohibiting slavery in the territories, having cleared Congress, was sent to Lincoln.” (Sentence 3)

“As you read through the list of tasks, think of ways to divide and conquer the work.” (Sentence 4)

“Zips, wiggles, pouts, smiles, laughter, mirror, hair-flicking, head-tossing.” (Sentence 5)

“Patricia Moore’s great-great-grandfather, Jeremiah Cox, had been a ship captain and later owner of a fleet of vessels, which, from the look of things, had never unloaded cargo except at the landing.” (Sentence 6)

“Because essential oils can be expensive, unscrupulous vendors may add synthetic fragrance components or diluents to their products to stretch them and make more money.” (Sentence 7)

What can you tell from a single sentence? Even if I hadn’t been the one to type them out, I think I’d be able to recognize the nonfiction. That would be sentences 3, 4, and 7. I read a lot of nonfiction but I also read a lot of children’s books. You might assume that the shortest sentences (1 and 2) are from children’s books. Those are both adult fiction. The children’s books would be 3 and 5.

I wish I had done this exercise as a new writer. Voice isn’t likely to be obvious from a single sentence. It takes a group of sentences for the reader to see how one plays into and off another and to get a feel for your word usage and flow.

Yes, each sentence is important. It needs to be clear. It needs to communicate. And it needs to be justifiably different from the sentences that precede and follow it. But don’t let agonizing over a single sentence trip you up. One word or twenty, the work and your voice are much bigger than a single sentence.


In addition to blogging here at the Muffin, Sue Bradford Edwards blogs at One Writer's Journey.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Because I think voice is the rhythm of a writer combined with word choice combined with figurative language choices combined with punctuation choices combined with tone combined with probably some things I've left out, determining whose voice it is via one sentence is (in my mind) impossible. Yes, we need to do our best work with words, but it is the sum of the whole work that shouts out the writer's voice.

Thought-provoking post from you, Sue, as usual.

Theresa Boedeker said...

Fun piece to read and see what the sentences were. Reminds me of the one of the tests I had to take as part of the application process to be considered for a Master of Fine Arts in English. Only we were given paragraphs from different books and had to identify the author and title. Not an easy task, even with a whole paragraph and a limited amount of possible choices. If we had only had a sentence, I would have failed, unless it had been an iconic sentence that the author was known for. Like, "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times."

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