I had just been accepted into the Ph.D. program at Cambridge. But, of course, your status on official documents for your first year was something demoralizing, along the lines of “unregistered for any degree in the first instance”. This is typical Cambridge speak. Sometime in the early part of the summer, my supervisor sat me down and told me, in so many words, that I was a terrible writer—and that was only a bit of the very difficult conversation. I have to say it is an unfortunate fact that up till that moment, it had never dawned on me that I couldn’t write “good”. Don’t get me wrong, I knew I wasn’t a Shakespeare, but I had never been told that I wrote poorly; I had never had a professor point this out (at least outside of a grammar class), and, this, after four years of undergrad and four years of graduate studies.
The one suggestion my supervisor gave me was to read 19th century literature and mimic the sentences structures in my academic writing. He specified that I should read fiction because it was there that I’d find the best writers. So I devoted the rest of the summer, at least in part, to read 19th literature. I chose to read Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot on a tip from Eugene Peterson who wrote that the most influential source for his pastoral training was reading Dostoyevsky. By the way, it was an incredible story, and I think it helped my writing, but I don’t know that I learned much about ministry.
My supervisor was right (as was usual). Reading the translation of Dostoyevesky’s stories was not only beneficial to my writing, but also very enjoyable—I was to go on to read The Brothers Karamazov.
The eighth chapter of the Williams and Colomb’s book Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (10th Edition) is about writing sentences that are long and complex, but clear and shapely. This was exactly what my supervisor was getting at when he suggested reading 19th century literature.
If you can write clear and concise sentences, you have achieved much. But if you can’t write a clear sentence longer than twenty words or so, you’re like a composer who can write only jingles. Despite those who advice against long sentences, you cannot communicate every complex idea in a short one: you have to know how to write a sentence that is both long and clear (118-19).
Here are five principles for writing “shapely” sentences:
1. Open the sentence with its point in a short main clause stating the key claim that you want the sentence to make.
2. Get quickly to the subject, then to the verb and its object, thus: (a) avoid long introductory phrases and clauses; (b) avoid long subjects; and (c) avoid interrupting subjects and verbs, and verbs and objects.
3. After the main clause, avoid adding one subordinate clause to another to another to another . . ., thus: (a) trim relative clauses and break the sentences into two; (b) extend a sentence with resumptive, summative, or free modifiers (you’ll have to get the book to get the description of these!); and (c) coordinate elements that are parallel both in grammar and in sense.
4. End a sentence with the appropriate emphasis.
5. Know how to use punctuation because a key to composing long and clear sentences is: knowing how to punctuate.
I would add, finally, that many of you need to work on writing, if like me, you come from less than Ivy League undergrads and attend or attended an evangelical seminary (although probably most seminaries for that matter). So let me save you a difficult conversation with a supervisor. Learn how to write complex and concise sentences. You can learn to write if you work hard at it. By the way, reading Dostoyevsky isn’t a bad practice!