How to write the perfect sentence

Orwell advised cutting as many words as possible, Woolf found energy in verbs, and Baldwin aimed for ‘a sentence as clean as a bone’. What can we learn from celebrated authors about the art of writing well?

Every writer, of school age and older, is in the sentences game. The sentence is our writing commons, the shared ground where all writers walk. A poet writes in sentences, and so does the unsung author who came up with “Items trapped in doors cause delays”. The sentence is the Ur-unit, the core material, the granular element that must be got right or nothing will be right. For James Baldwin, the only goal was “to write a sentence as clean as a bone”.

What can celebrated writers teach the rest of us about the art of writing a great sentence? A common piece of writing advice is to make your sentences plain, unadorned ...

Why you should read this article slowly

Amid fears of shrinking attention spans, it’s time to stop skimming our screens and try slow reading – it is rich in rewards

Are we doomed to read distractedly in the digital age? Technology seems to deter slow, immersive reading. Scrolling down a web page with your thumb feels innately less attentive than turning over the pages of a book. Reading on a screen, particularly a phone screen, tires your eyes and makes it harder for you to keep your place. So online writing tends to be more skimmable and list-like than print. At the top of a web article, we are now often told how long it will detain us, forewarned that the words below are a “15-minute read”. The online reader’s put-down is TL;DR. Too long; didn’t read.

The cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf argued recently that this “new norm” of skim reading is producing “an invisible, game-changing transformation” ...

Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson review – the future is fun

This technophile’s optimism for the future appears well founded if the past is any guide Geoff Dyer has complained that much current non-fiction is reducible to a snappy thesis that can be summed up “without the tedious obligation of reading the whole book”. Such books, he writes, seem like expanded versions of “skilfully managed proposals … which then get boiled back down again with the sale of serial rights”. Steven Johnson’s Wonderland is one of those books. Its claims can be condensed into a sentence. “When human beings create and share experiences designed to delight or amaze,” he writes, “they often end up transforming society in more dramatic ways than people focused on more utilitarian concerns.” Don’t look to the struggles for survival, land and wealth for the forces that drive social change, he says. Look to wherever you see “people mucking around with magic, ...

A World Gone Mad by Astrid Lindgren – war and the birth of Pippi Longstocking

These 1939-45 diaries from the Swedish children’s author, which feature roast reindeer and sorrow across Europe, are oddly cheering The Swedish children’s author Astrid Lindgren will be forever linked with that irrepressible nine-year-old she unleashed on the world in 1945. Pippi Longstocking, with “hair the same colour as a carrot ... braided in two stiff pigtails that stood straight out”, lives all by herself in a tumbledown cottage, with a suitcase full of gold coins, free from school and other grey routines. Pippi’s cheerful dismissal of convention was an answer to overprotective parents everywhere, a proto-feminist manifesto and an affirmation of postwar optimism. Lindgren’s wartime diaries, which lay neglected in a wicker laundry basket in her Stockholm flat for years after her death in 2002, reveal how Pippi emerged out of less happy times. The aspiring writer records her first entry on 1 September 1939 (“Oh! War broke out today”). ...

Keeping On Keeping On by Alan Bennett review – marvellously unguarded

The latest batch of diaries and occasional pieces ranges from tattoos and Thatcher’s funeral to becoming an ‘old git’When Alan Bennett published his first prose collection, Writing Home, in 1994, he said with classic self-abasement that “at least there’s no time for a second volume”. Since then, luckily for us, there have been two more, each fatter than its predecessor. After Untold Stories (2005) comes this book, with a similar mix of talks, prefaces, programme notes, eulogies for dead friends and other fugitive pieces. More of Keeping On Keeping On than Bennett’s two previous collections – just over half – consists of an expanded version of the diaries that he publishes annually in the London Review of Books. This instalment starts in 2005 as he and his partner, Rupert Thomas, prepare to leave Gloucester Crescent, the Camden street where the Lady in the Van took up residence, ...

Thatcher Stole My Trousers by Alexei Sayle review – communist bingo at the Comedy Store

The second instalment of Sayle’s impressive memoirs takes him from art school to the miners’ strike. His background in revolutionary politics and avant-garde theatre proved to be ideal for a new era of standup Standup comedy can offer some of the most thrilling live theatre of our age: a mix of sprawling storytelling, political polemic, public psychotherapy and cathartic laughter. And yet few standups have come close to capturing a fraction of this creative energy in a book. Their autobiographies fill the bestseller lists but they are almost always ponderous. The most verbally inventive comics, who can reincorporate little echoes of earlier jokes into long routines that deftly balance structure with formlessness, turn out to have no idea how to pace out a written narrative. Worse, they fill the page with their standup punchlines, adopting what Garrison Keillor once called that “giddy tone of voice” that is “the writing equivalent of a ...

I love you, I love you, I love you … why we can’t stop using those three little words

As a furious Jonathan Franzen noted while buying socks one day, you can’t go out without hearing someone yell this most intimate phrase into their mobile phone. Is this a sign of an increasing emotional incontinence, or have these words become a magic charm for a networked age? In her recent memoir The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson writes of sending her new lover, after she has first declared her love for him, a passage from Roland Barthes’s autobiography. In this passage Barthes states that the one who says “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name”. In the course of their epic journey, the Argonauts gradually replaced every single plank and nail of the Argo so it became “an object with no other cause than its name”. The meaning of “I love you”, Barthes reflects, must be constantly restated too, ...