The perfect sentence

At one of the newspapers I worked, a talented writer/reporter remarked in his column that his goal was to write the perfect sentence. In time, that’s become my goal as well. I’m not sure I’ve come close. (That last sentence wasn’t it: “come close” has a nice alliteration, but “I’m not sure” is too much work for the lips.)

I may have written a perfect sentence. Statistically, it’s likely that somewhere in my stacks of papers — hidden in an analysis of Karl Barth’s theology — I put together a bunch of words that shines.

The reality is, if anyone’s written the perfect sentence, he or she probably threw it out. Unless you’re Vladimir Nabokov, a perfect sentence will ruin the sentences around it. A sentence, like anything else, will stand out — and not necessarily in a good way — if it’s surrounded by sentences of a different quality. It’s the old Rodney Dangerfield axiom: “If you want to look thin, hang out with fat people.” A perfect sentence doesn’t make other sentences look better; it makes them look “fat” in comparison.

One goal of good writing is consistency. Sentences must fit together. They must cooperate, not fight one another for attention. Norman Mailer remarked about Truman Capote, “He writes the best sentences word for word, rhythm upon rhythm.” I don’t think Mailer meant Capote wrote the perfect sentence. The strength of Capote’s writing is the way his “best sentences” (plural) work together. They have rhythm and energy. They sustain one another and keep “in character.” That’s good writing.

So maybe I should modify my goal, to move away from a “perfect sentence” to a string of good sentences — sentences that are properly social and understand they need to cooperate to make something great. And, if in my writing, I do find my perfect sentence, I’ll capture it and put it in a jar where it can’t make other sentences look bad.


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