Student questions often help me to identify topics for new lectures and blog posts. That’s exactly what happened with this terrific, practical question that I received yesterday from a student in my Novel Writing Master Class Series.

In Lesson 11: On Endings & on Making Progress, I clicked on “the last word” at the very top which transported me to William Landay’s site. The site was a revelation, as was Graham Greene. And while there, I clicked on Mr Landay’s blog..and I was drawn to his article, “How writers write: Ian McEwan.” And in the article Mr McEwan talks about moving words around within a sentence. So with that preamble, could you please recommend an English grammar book that would school me on how to write a sentence, how to break down a sentence to its building blocks, the art of positioning words and then how to build a paragraph and a scene?

I love this question because it made me think about something in a new way. Writers spend so much time talking about plot, character, setting, voice, point of view, and other elements of narrative craft that we sometimes forget to talk about one of the most essential building blocks of story: the sentence.

When I was in high school, I loved diagramming sentences. The clarity of those intersecting bars, the precision of the diagonal branches, was beautiful to me. I understood the mathematics of sentence structure in a way I could never understand numbers. However, it has been decades since I’ve taken the time to diagram a sentence. Some years ago, I spent four semesters teaching the nitty gritty of grammar to freshmen at City College of San Francisco. By the time I left City College to teach creative writing at California College of the Arts, I had practically memorized the grammar textbook. But that was a long time ago (and yes, I did just unapologetically begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction.) When I’m writing, as when I’m editing, I simply go by ear.

That said, a good book can go a long way in untangling some of the complicated matters of syntax.

Here are my recommendations for students who want to understand sentence construction on a molecular level:

A college-level grammar handbook, such as the McGraw Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage, will teach you how to analyze sentences and all of their moving parts. While such handbooks make for exceedingly boring reading, the exercises and explanations are helpful if you’re willing to do the work.

A more entertaining yet practical look at how sentences are made is It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences, by June Casagrande.

Casagrande, who writes a column on language and syntax, analyzes sentences from literature and dissects sentence structure. The chapters are organized according to common problems — like those pesky dangling modifiers — and parts of speech, like the much-maligned adverb.

Another popular handbook, with about 50 pages devoted solely to sentences, from the simple to the compound to the compound-complex, is Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose, by Constance Hale.

If you like to play it by ear, you’ll enjoy Gawker’s list of The 50 Best First Sentences in Fiction.


You can also join the conversation and participate in live video classes when you enroll in my Novel Writing Master Class series.