I flunked the Building Great Sentences Course


Shiloh National Military Park


The other day, I was on a Google+ Hangout with Caleb Pirtle, Bert Carson, Christina Carson and Jack Durish.  In the course of that conversation, we happened upon the topic of on-line education classes and more particularly The Great Courses catalog of offerings.

One thing led to another and  I had to tell about my experience with Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft, a twenty-four part lecture series by Professor Brooks Landon of the University of Iowa.

A couple of years ago a friend of mine who knew I had started writing gave me Professor Landon’s lectures,  a two volume set of CDs. I thanked him and promptly filed them away.  But as fate would have it, the summer of 2010 brought a long solo road trip for me from East Texas to Louisville, Kentucky.  For some reason I decided that would be the perfect time to break out Professor Landon.

In the first hour or so, I learned of what the professor called “cumulative sentences.” These are sentences that operate on multiple levels and grow increasingly complex.  I had that part down  by Monroe, Louisiana.

Professor Landon Brooks

The cat ate the rat. Level one.

The cat, mewing and clawing at the door, wanted to eat the rat.  Level Two

I turned north on US 165 and skirted the west bank of the Mississippi River until I reached Greenville, Mississippi, the home of the Delta Blues Trail.

Scratching its ears, the cat, mewing and clawing at the door, wanted to eat the rat, that noxious nocturnal purveyor of disease.  Level Four.

I had determined to make it as far as Shiloh that evening, so I could rise early and visit the National Military Park on the banks of the Tennessee River.  The Toyota Sequoia became a prison house of erudition as I traversed the alluvial plain and ascended to higher ground.  By the time I reached the Holiday Inn Select a few miles south of the battleground, I had begun to babble in five-level cumulative sentences.

Because my credit card cleared the front desk, the clerk asked me no questions.

By sunrise the next morning, I was in the park.

Forgetful of his Bambi-ish youth, oblivious to the intrusion of modern man, the deer tip-toed into a clearing, a place where a Confederate general thought victory at hand, a victory as ephemeral as a fruit fly’s childhood, a childhood devoid of joy, a precursor of a failed life. Level Six.

I couldn’t enjoy the moment, the few  minutes of a lifetime when I would walk those hallowed grounds, the fields where blue and gray men gasped their last breaths.

By the time I reached Louisville, I was incoherent.

I placed the CD collection in my suitcase.  A week later, I entered writer’s rehab, aka, the real world.

Occasionally, I feel the tug of those cumulative sentences. I know they have their place, when used with caution. But I doubt I could pass the professor’s course with this.

On the most beautiful day of summer, I drove at day break into the Shiloh National Military Park.  Three hundred yards in, I saw a herd of deer who looked at me, an intruder.  I parked and walked through the cemetery to a stone path that led down to the river.  The surface of the water shimmered in the rising sun as I thought of the Yankees, how they reinforced their troops from the north bank granting a general’s reprieve.

I watched two men in a twenty-one foot center console boat anchor along a sand bar midstream and drop their fishing lines in the water. I watched as they gave up and moved farther upstream toward the great dam.

I mourned for the fallen on both sides, got in my car and headed away from that sacred ground, earth stained forever with the lifeblood of brothers.


(Stephen Woodfin has visited the Shiloh National Military Park twice.  He considers it a place like no other.)

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  • I don’t write cumulative sentences. I write short sentences an accumulate a lot of them.

  • I once had an editor who told me that I wrote like a lawyer. I beamed with pride until I discovered that it was an insult. I had been trained to be a lawyer, and although I never practiced the profession, I thought the time and money was well spent. I could compose sentences that would linger for pages, all grammatically correct and saying what I meant to say. The editor spent the next couple of months beating it out of me. I thanked him for his efforts.

    • Legal writing is one of the driest forms of prose I know. Plus it rewards obscurity instead of clarity in writing. That’s a hard lesson to unlearn. I wrote a brief in plain English a few years ago and my co-counsel at the time simply couldn’t get his mind around it. By the time it was finished all the life had left the pages and it was just another brief. I won’t ever let that happen again. Simple clear writing is best in whatever profession it appears.

      • Allegorist?Theorist?Cynic?-Jex

        Well as I see it, writing should and can be clear, regardless of the syntax used. Also, let us remember that variety is the “spice of life” and so too is one of the keys to effective writing.

  • That’s great writing, cumulative sentences or not! I’ve never taken a “writing” course in my life. I always felt that doing so would somehow alter my natural voice, which I happened to like. Egotistical, I guess, but it has worked for me. Sometimes talent is not served by piling on “book knowledge”. I never, ever had a desire for my work to have anything near the scent of academe.

    • It is really a conundrum. The academy teaches people to mimic great writing of authors long gone, while thumbing its nose at those laboring today in the vineyard. It is as Mark Twain said: “It takes a helluva person to survive a formal education.” Thanks for the comment.

    • Parttime rebel, Jex.

      Ah, but for me, a writer of fairy tales that serve as platform for me to voice my political/social/economic opinions, and my concern for the current state of affairs in this world, this course only served to sharpen the blade that is my tongue, not to replace it with another weapon not my own, but merely to make more effective the one that I wield, for I use my words as a sword, striking against, or at least (hopefully) revealing, the tyrany of the kings and queens of this world, yes the puppet masters that pull the strings of the ones supposedly ellected to serve us, those dispeicable scoundrels who care nothing for the common man, who use our backs as their footstools, and eat the fruit of OUR labor, who succes is supported by our shoulders, and whose profits come at the expense of our blood, those men and women do I lash out at with a voice made only more lethal yet by the guidance of those wise masters of rhetoric who came before me.

  • That was a hoot. I’m surprised you didn’t run off the road after an hour or two. However, I do believe that what Landon said needed to be said as great sentences had grown to be anathema to good writing in these last few years. And that’s baloney.

    • Christina, I agree. There is a place for cumulative sentences. Just not a place to listen to someone talking about them for fifteen straight hours, lol. The professor pointed out that people say that long sentences are bad. But for him a long sentence isn’t bad because it is long. It is bad because it is bad. The longer it is, the greater the chances of its becoming bad. I always come back to the word “elegant” when I think of long sentences. If a long sentence is “elegant,” it is a thing of beauty. If it is clumsy, it is a monstrosity. Of course, elegance is one of those things that resides in the ear of the listener.

      • EHO

        This is a very good response, and true. But what if clumsy and even a wee bit of monstrosity fits the bill for the story? I’m thinking the writing can echo the circumstances and the structure of the sentence is a main element in successfully doing that. Not just with vocabulary but with cadence, length, onomadipeia, etc…

        • Chronicler of fairy/pixie war

          Well as Landon said “Once more we are reminded that the so-called rules of grammar should really be thought of as guidelines, some of them quite loose. The bottom line is that language is inherently rebellious, chaffing against any authority that would attempt to limit what it can and cant do, finding these pressure points where the rules simply don’t work is part of what makes writing so much fun.”

  • Jex, of political fairy-tales

    Halfway through the course he says that cumulatives are not absolute and goes into how to do suspensives, and even better, how to blend the two, making for master sentences. As I recall, he did warn against straying too far from the original idea of the sentence, the base clause, or kernel as it were, and to always maintain a clear, logical conection through-out your sentences, and through all the cumulative layers. Obviously.

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