Writing 101—How to Trust and Value Your Own Thinking

From “Where Do Sentences Come From?”,  by Verlyn Klinkenborg,  a member of The New York Times Editorial Board and the author of Several Short Sentences About Writing.

So let’s demystify the origin of sentences. Think of it this way. You almost surely have a voice inside your head. At present, it’s an untrained voice. It natters along quite happily, constructing delayed ripostes and hypothetical conversations. Why not give it something useful to do? Memorize some poetry or prose, nothing too arcane. A rhythmic kind of writing works best, something that sounds almost spoken. Then play those passages over and over again in your memory. You now have in your head something that is identifiably “language,” not merely thoughts that somehow seem unlinguistic.

Now try turning a thought into a sentence. This is harder than it seems because first you have to find a thought. They may seem scarce because nothing in your education has suggested that your thoughts are worth paying attention to. Again and again I see in students, no matter how sophisticated they are, a fear of the dark, cavernous place called the mind. They turn to it as though it were a mailbox. They take a quick peek, find it empty and walk away.

So experiment a little. Make a sentence of your own in your head. Don’t write it down. Any kind of sentence will do, but keep it short. Rearrange it. Reword it. Then throw it out. Make another. Rearrange. Reword. Discard. You can do this anywhere, at any time. Do it again and again, without inscribing anything. Experiment with rhythm. Let the sentences come and go. Evaluate them, play with them, but don’t cling to them. If you find a sentence you really like, let it go and look for the next one. The more you do this, the easier it will be to remember the sentences you want to keep. Better yet, you’ll know that you can replace any sentence you lose with one that’s just as good.

There’s a good reason for doing this all in your head. You’re learning to be comfortable in that dark, cavernous place. It’s not so frightening. There’s language there, and you’re learning to play with it on your own without the need to snatch at words and phrases for an assignment. And here’s another good reason. A sentence you don’t write down is a sentence you feel free to change. Inscribe it, and you’re chained to it for life. That, at least, is how many writers act. A written sentence possesses a crippling inertia.

What should these mental sentences be about? Anything you happen to notice. Anything you happen to think. Anything you want to say. You could make a sentence merely because a word keeps popping into your mind. But learn to play with every sentence you make in your head, shuffling words, searching for accuracy, listening for rhythm. Your memory will surprise you. Because you’re writing nothing down, it may seem as though you’re not writing at all. But you’re building confidence, an assurance that when you’re in the place where sentences come from — deep in the intermingling of thought and words — you’re in a place where good things usually happen.

Before you learn to write well, to trust yourself as a writer, you will have to learn to be patient in the presence of your own thoughts. You’ll learn that making sentences in your head will elicit thoughts you didn’t know you could have. Thinking patiently will yield far better sentences than you thought you could make.

I’m repeatedly asked how I write, what my “process” is. My answer is simple: I think patiently, trying out sentences in my head. That is the root of it. What happens on paper or at the keyboard is only distantly connected. The virtue of working this way is that circumstances—time, place, tools—make no difference whatsoever. All I need is my head. All I need is the moments I have.

There’s no magic here. Practice these things, and you’ll stop fearing what happens when it’s time to make sentences worth inscribing. You’ll no longer feel as though a sentence is a glandular secretion from some cranial inkwell that’s always on the verge of drying up. You won’t be able to say precisely where sentences come from—there is no where there—but you’ll know how to wait patiently as they emerge and untangle themselves. You’ll discover the most important thing your education left out: how to trust and value your own thinking. And you’ll also discover one of things writing is for: pleasure.



    Dear Jack,

    Almost every word and all of the eventual sentences and paragraphs written by Mr. Verlyn Klinkenborg irritate the bejesus out of me. Why am I so viscerally upset?

    To my ear his prose is wooden and contrived; his choice of words is snooty and mediocre; his dictates about how to construct a story are both ill-conceived and silly. After looking up about 30 quotes of his I feel that I’ve read the thoughts of a pedantic hack who expects his readers to believe his bunkum because his has written a book or two and works for a well-known publishing company.

    His opening paragraph is composed of ten sentences, not one of which enjoys even a tiny crumb of charm. Most are just plain pompous in that word’s most arrogant, conceited, overbearing, and condescending sense. Mr. Klinkenborg neither demystifies nor illuminates the “origin of sentences” and he haughtily assumes that the reader he is addressing has a dopey voice in her/his head that “natters along quite happily,” like an idiot’s might.

    I have known bright four-year-olds who would be insulted by his insolence and impudence. I’ve edited enough fine writers whose thoughts don’t natter to know that Mr. Klinkenborg’s observations are full of guano. The final sentence about “language”, which does not bear repeating, lacks any useful meaning.

    In the next six-sentence paragraph Mr. Klinkenborg demeans his luckless students (they stumbled into the wrong classroom) whom he depicts as essentially thoughtless and in “fear of the dark, cavernous place called the mind.” He compares their minds to an empty mailbox.

    He sounds to me like a perfect adjunct professor at a bad journalism school. Any student of his worth a farthing would get up and stalk out.

    His next 18 sentences tell fledgling writers to “experiment a little” by “again and again” making up sentences in their heads that they don’t write down. Not a single one of those 18 sentences is worth either reading or remembering. Perhaps that’s his covert point. The rest of the paragraph’s advice is so pretentiously juvenile that it’s not worth bothering about.

    This time suck is followed by several tiresome and disagreeable paragraphs, and flaunts one of the least intelligent sentences I’ve read in years:

    “A sentence you don’t write down is a sentence you feel free to change. Inscribe it, and you’re chained to it for life.”

    Tell that nonsense to any writer who has ever been published for money and you are quite sure to provoke a derogatory laugh.

    His last 13-sentence paragraph contains three sentences that include a distasteful comparison that Mr. Klinkenborg must be chained to for life:

    “There’s no magic here. Practice these things, and you’ll stop fearing what happens when it’s time to make sentences worth inscribing. You’ll no longer feel as though a sentence is a glandular secretion from some cranial inkwell that’s always on the verge of drying up.

    I don’t think I’ve ever read any less worthy advice for writers than Mr. Klinkenborg’s and I hope his cranial inkwell has mercifully dried up.

  2. Ted Van Dyk says

    Seems to me we learn to construct sentences by doing a lot of reading. After awhile your brain finds constructions which it likes and finds comfortable. Not even a conscious process. You also construct sentences according to your personality. Some love complex, dense and long sentences. Others love the simple and direct. I agree with Collier that Klinkenborg is probably boring his students as much as his readers.

    • Richard Mattersdorff says

      Yes. A lot of reading. Today I found myself reading excerpts of McCain eulogies and breaking up run-on sentences in my head.

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