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Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer's Craft

Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer's Craft

Professor Brooks Landon Ph.D.
The University of Iowa
Course No.  2368
Course No.  2368
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Great writing begins—and ends—with the sentence.

Whether two words ("Jesus wept.") or 1,287 words (a sentence in William Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom!), sentences have the power to captivate, entertain, motivate, educate, and, most importantly, delight.

Understanding the variety of ways to construct sentences, from the smallest clause to the longest sentence, is important to enhancing your appreciation of great writing and potentially improving your own.

  • Why do some lengthy sentences flow effortlessly while others stumble along?
  • Why are you captivated by the writing of particular authors but not others?
  • How can you craft sentences that reflect your own unique outlook on the world?
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Great writing begins—and ends—with the sentence.

Whether two words ("Jesus wept.") or 1,287 words (a sentence in William Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom!), sentences have the power to captivate, entertain, motivate, educate, and, most importantly, delight.

Understanding the variety of ways to construct sentences, from the smallest clause to the longest sentence, is important to enhancing your appreciation of great writing and potentially improving your own.

  • Why do some lengthy sentences flow effortlessly while others stumble along?
  • Why are you captivated by the writing of particular authors but not others?
  • How can you craft sentences that reflect your own unique outlook on the world?

Get the answers to these and other questions about writing and style in Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer's Craft, a lively 24-lecture course taught by Professor Brooks Landon from the University of Iowa—one of the nation's top writing schools. You explore the myriad ways in which we think about, talk about, and write sentences. You discover insights into what makes for pleasurable reading. You also learn how you can apply these methods to your own writing.

More Than Just a String of Words

Building Great Sentences revives the sentence-oriented approach to studying writing. Unlike common nuts-and-bolts approaches to discussing writing, this course provides a greater context for what makes sentences great. You investigate how to recognize the mechanics of the sentences you read and write, you learn how language works on your thoughts and emotions, and you discover basic strategies to sharpen your ability to recognize great sentences and make your own everyday writing more effective.

More than just a string of words, "sentences are shaped by specific context and driven by specific purpose," notes Professor Landon. "No 'rules' or mechanical protocols can prepare us for the infinite number of tasks our sentences must accomplish."

Explore a Vast World of Sentences

Consisting of a subject, a verb, and sometimes an object ("The girl raised the flag."), the kernels from which sentences grow are called minimal base clauses. Adding modifying words ("slowly") or phrases ("because doing so would inspire her compatriots") creates larger sentences that lead toward great writing.

In Building Great Sentences, you delve into the ways that literary and popular writers work with these larger sentences (called cumulative sentences) and encounter the three distinct levels that enhance these sentence kernels by:

  • Adding information and keeping a sentence moving in place ("She served the dessert, a French pastry affair dripping in dark chocolate.")
  • Moving a sentence forward with increased specificity ("He drove carefully, one hand on the wheel, the other hand holding a sandwich, a ham and cheese fossil, a strangely colored lump made days before by his sister.")
  • Adding information and moving a sentence forward at the same time ("Big Al headed back into the bar, a demented grin twisting his scarred face, his bloodshot eyes narrowed to a fierce squint, looking around the dim and smoke-filled interior, scanning the terrified inhabitants for any of his tormentors.")

You also explore sentence constructions that make writing more complex and add exciting levels of suspense, and you see tactics that create balance and rhythm in sentences. Professor Landon makes these writing methods clear and easy to apply to your own reading and writing habits. Some of the many illuminating methods you come across are:

  • Using a mirroring effect between words to suggest confidence ("Dryden's page is a natural field, rising into inequalities, and diversified by the varied exuberance of abundant vegetation; Pope's is a velvet lawn, shaven by the scythe, and leveled by the roller.")
  • Using three phrases of parallel construction to create unity and emphasis in a sentence ("I came, I saw, I conquered.")
  • Beginning each element in a series with the same word or words ("The reason I object to Dr. Johnson's style is that there is no discrimination, no selection, no variety in it.")
  • Ending each element in a series with the same word or words ("Raphael paints wisdom; Handel sings it, Phidias carves it, Shakespeare writes it, Wren builds it, Columbus sails it, Luther preaches it, Washington arms it, Watt mechanizes it.")

Recognizing and appreciating these and other eye-opening aspects of sentences helps you understand the work that goes into creating an effective, pleasurable sentence. With the newfound knowledge gained from Building Great Sentences, you become more aware of why particular lines, passages, or phrases in the poems, novels, or articles you read so enchant you.

Learn from the Masters

Building Great Sentences draws abundantly on examples from the work of brilliant writers who are masters in the craft of writing, including Don DeLillo, Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion, and Samuel Johnson. Their novels, essays, and short stories are frequently cited to illustrate how sentences can tease, surprise, test, and satisfy you.

Whether it was an epic poem, an 800-page novel, or a passionate op-ed in a local newspaper, you've no doubt been captivated by a particular line, passage, or phrase in something you've read—but you can't understand why. With Building Great Sentences, you get the secrets you need not only to recognize great writing, but also to understand what exactly makes it so great.

You also investigate numerous instances in which an author's writing style reflects key points in the lectures. For example:

  • The opening paragraph of Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms reflects the author's "tough-guy" narrative style in its use of simple and direct writing.
  • The lengthy sentences in Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day demonstrate the importance of enhancing writing through the use of figurative language.
  • The final sentence of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Sharer displays just how much information can hide beneath the surface of sentences.

Professor Landon's animated readings of these and other examples (including some of his own sentences) help you grasp the various structures and rhythms of sentences. They also give you new ways to look at why these and other writing styles have delighted so many readers.

Avoid Dense Grammar

Building Great Sentences provides you with key insights into the craft of writing, but it never becomes a dull grammar lesson. Rather, the course is designed as a study of sentences within the larger framework of prose style and writing theory.

Grammar is only used to address larger issues about writing; as you examine the rewards (and potential risks) of various sentence forms, you never become bogged down in a study of dense grammar.

You focus on why and how these various sentence forms use language to achieve particular goals, not on labeling parts of a sentence. A thorough and helpful study of what makes for elegant and effective writing, notes Professor Landon, cannot depend solely on grammar.

A Passionate Approach to the Craft

Professor Landon is the Director of the General Education Literature Program at the University of Iowa and the recipient of the school's M. L. Huit Teaching Award. Having regularly taught a sentence-based prose style course at the University of Iowa for more than 25 years, he is the perfect guide to take you into the intricate pleasures of great sentences.

Building Great Sentences stems from Professor Landon's passion for a sentence-based approach to writing, commonly overshadowed by more technical, theory-based approaches that ignore the pleasures of reading and writing.

You see Professor Landon's countertraditional approach—emphasizing the pleasure of language and not the avoidance of mistakes. This method makes this course a unique way to experience and understand the pleasure that Gertrude Stein found in the sequences of words that constitute our sentences.

With its passionate approach to writing and reading, and its indulgence in the sheer joy of language, Building Great Sentences will change the way you read and write. It's a journey that gives you unique insights into the nature of great writing—it also teaches you how you can achieve some of this greatness yourself.

View Less
24 Lectures
  • 1
    A Sequence of Words
    Building great sentences depends on more than just stringing words together. This lecture explores the definition of a sentence and introduces several assumptions on which the course rests, such as that a greater control of syntax is one of the most direct routes to improving writing. x
  • 2
    Grammar and Rhetoric
    Examine some of the key terminology used throughout the course and focus on learning how sentences work (their rhetoric) instead of merely labeling their constituent parts (their grammar). x
  • 3
    Propositions and Meaning
    A sentence may contain more propositions than are visible in the grammar and syntax of its surface language. Discover how the facts, ideas, and feelings in a sentence lie beneath its words and organization. x
  • 4
    How Sentences Grow
    Adding propositional content to a kernel sentence ("They slept.") moves sentences forward and enriches their meaning. Here are three types of strategies that give sentences more momentum and depth: the connective, the subordinative, and the adjectival. x
  • 5
    Adjectival Steps
    Professor Landon makes the case for using adjectival strategies to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of your sentences. Boiling down subordinate clauses to single modifying words allows you to pack more information into each sentence. x
  • 6
    The Rhythm of Cumulative Syntax
    Cumulative sentences lend themselves to writing moves that almost guarantee more effective sentences. Learn how these easy-to-write sentences take you through increasingly specific sentence levels and how they clarify and embellish preceding phrases. x
  • 7
    Direction of Modification
    Cumulative sentences also employ modifying words and phrases before, between, or at the end of base clauses. Investigate the benefits and potential risks of each of these placement options on the meaning of your sentences. x
  • 8
    Coordinate, Subordinate, and Mixed Patterns
    With your newfound understanding of the relationship between base clauses and modifying phrases, you examine the three major patterns of cumulative sentences and their effect on the base clause: coordinate (refining information), subordinate (providing new information), and mixed (combining the previous two patterns). x
  • 9
    Coordinate Cumulative Sentences
    This lecture elaborates on coordinate cumulative patterns, which pile up modifying phrases that point back to the base clause. It also emphasizes the importance of listening to how your sentences read as a means of tightening up their logic. x
  • 10
    Subordinate and Mixed Cumulatives
    Continuing the discussion of various cumulative sentence patterns, Professor Landon zeroes in on subordinate and mixed patterns, which offer more variety to sentences by adding specificity or tapping into the strengths of both coordinate and subordinate patterns. x
  • 11
    Prompts of Comparison
    Prompts like "as if," "as though," and "like" can prompt writers to look for metaphors, similes, or speculative phrases that add information, clarification, and imaginative appeal to sentences. Learn how writers forge emotional links with their readers by incorporating figurative language into their writing. x
  • 12
    Prompts of Explanation
    Prompts can also speculate about the unknown. Examine three major prompts—"because," "perhaps," and "possibly"—to use in your sentences, so you can reveal more of your thinking and strengthen the connection between you and your readers. x
  • 13
    The Riddle of Prose Rhythm
    Follow along with scholars and critics as they try to study, measure, and explain the mystery of prose rhythm. Learn to better recognize the distinctive rhythms that characterize your sentences by imagining their modifying levels as long or short bits of Morse code. x
  • 14
    Cumulative Syntax to Create Suspense
    Learn to start thinking about sentences as not just "loose" or "periodic" but as possessing degrees of suspense. Base clauses in a cumulative sentence can be moved about or split to increase or decrease the reader's suspense about how the sentence will end. x
  • 15
    Degrees of Suspensiveness
    In this lecture, you unpack the periodic/suspensive sentence, which suggests a greater degree of control over its material and, when used effectively, can generate interest by combining complex concepts with syntactical suspense. x
  • 16
    The Mechanics of Delay
    Look closely at four broad tactics to delay completing the base clause, two of which involve the manipulation of modifiers and two of which use initial clauses or phrases as either extended subjects or as modifiers. You also consider a possible fifth tactic that involves using a colon or semicolon. x
  • 17
    Prefab Patterns for Suspense
    Another option for adding suspense to sentences is starting them with certain prompts such as "if" or "since." This lecture illustrates the uses of these and other prompts and considers some reasons for making suspense a critical part of your prose style. x
  • 18
    Balanced Sentences and Balanced Forms
    Perhaps the most intense form of the periodic/suspensive sentence is the balanced sentence. Professor Landon points out that balanced sentences, in drawing their strength from the tension between variation and repetition, offer an advantage to writers comparing two subjects. x
  • 19
    The Rhythm of Twos
    Binary oppositions in balanced sentences lend confidence and conclusiveness to writing. With its mirroring effect, the duple (double-beat) rhythm gives balanced sentences the power to stay lodged in your mind. x
  • 20
    The Rhythm of Threes
    Three-part series bring an extended balance to sentences through the buildup of elements in threes. Delve into the unity, progression, and intensification at the heart of this syntactical form. x
  • 21
    Balanced Series and Serial Balances
    Sentence balance is an extension of the organizational constructs of human consciousness. Explore the prevalence of balanced rhythm in our speech and writing and look at numerous examples of sentence balance. x
  • 22
    Master Sentences
    The opposite of the minimal base clause is the master sentence: a very long sentence that can function in remarkably original and controlled ways. While no formula can anticipate the context and purpose of master sentences, you can construct effective ones by combining a number of the strategies from earlier lectures. x
  • 23
    Sentences in Sequence
    Move beyond the sentence and on to the impact of several sentences in sequence and see new possibilities of resonance and relationship among their rhythms and structures. x
  • 24
    Sentences and Prose Style
    How do our sentences fit into prose style? In exploring critical approaches to this issue, Professor Landon emphasizes that prose style can be seen as both a problem and a gift passed on from writer to writer. x

Lecture Titles

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Brooks Landon
Ph.D. Brooks Landon
The University of Iowa

Dr. Brooks Landon is Herman J. and Eileen S. Schmidt Professor of English and Collegiate Fellow at The University of Iowa and Director of the university's General Education Literature Program. He earned his M.A. and Ph.D. from The University of Texas at Austin. Since 1978, Professor Landon has regularly offered a prose-style course focused on the sentence. He has also taught courses in nonfiction writing, contemporary American fiction, 20th-century American literature and culture, modern fiction, science fiction, hypertext fiction and scholarship, and electronic textuality. Published widely in the fields of contemporary American literature and science fiction, Professor Landon is the author of numerous books, including Science Fiction After 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars; The Aesthetics of Ambivalence: Rethinking Science Fiction in the Age of Electronic (Re)Production; and Thomas Berger. Among his many awards and accolades are a University of Iowa M. L. Huit Teaching Award and an International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts Distinguished Scholarship.

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Reviews

Rated 3.7 out of 5 by 196 reviewers.
Rated 3 out of 5 by Starts Strong, Becomes Inconsistent I love writing stories, and therefore I am always striving to improve my writing. In watching this course, I have done just that. However, this course could have been so much more, and was extremely inconsistent in its presentation. Throughout the first half of this course, the material was well thought out, well structured, and strongly presented by Professor Landon. I learned something new each lecture, and was exposed to new ideas, and various styles of writing I had not, or only briefly encountered before. Professor Landon presented the lectures with enthusiasm, and kept each lecture perfectly paced. Each new lesson built on the concepts from the previous lessons and laid the groundwork for the following lessons. There was a point however, midway through the course, where the lectures became hit or miss, and for the most part, lost their structure. They would either diverge into various levels of excruciating detail, or breeze by without giving much information. There were a few topics that could have easily spanned two or even three lectures, but are only briefly covered in one, or part of a lecture. Professor Landon's enthusiasm remained present, but the hook for each lecture did not. Admittedly, there were lectures in the second half of the course that were well thought out, with topics that were well explained without unnecessary detail. However, even those lectures that came close to reaching the standards set in the first half of the lecture series, presented the material in an incomplete manner. It was like watching a sequel without seeing the original movie. The Guidebook that comes with the course provides exercises in support of each lecture, and gives you the opportunity to put what you learned to practical use. I strongly recommend that if you buy this course you do the exercises, for they can teach you how to work with a certain style of writing that perhaps the lecture itself was unable to do. I would like to reiterate that many lectures did help improve my writing, and the ones that were of little help were the minority. The inconsistency however, was irritating, and lessened my overall enjoyment of the course. I would only recommend this course for those who are passionate about developing their writing skills, and wish to improve their syntactic strategies. Even then, it is the first half of the course that is beneficial. While there are things to learn from the second half, they are watered down by either seemingly endless detail or quick overviews. March 21, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Superb; a joy I am good with words, but often feel that I can't control my sentences, that I'm just winging it and hoping to land safely. I've never gotten any advice that's helped me, probably because I didn't even know what to ask. This course is the advice I wanted; it's something I've been looking for all my life. Professor Landon understands that writing is an art, not a science (because, for one thing, the real rules of English grammar are still being debated by linguists), and so writing should be taught the way the arts are taught: by apprenticeship. You should see writing through the eyes of a master and learn by osmosis. And so Professor Landon makes his lectures into masterworks: beautiful, funny, personable. He is careful about grammatical terminology, but what he really cares about is playfulness and pleasure. He wants you to savor sentences for their effects, for how they make us feel and what they make us notice. (This means that cares much more about rhetoric than about grammar, if those terms are meaningful to you.) The technique he wants to teach is how to write very long sentences that are nonetheless easy to understand. As I've worked on some of his exercises, I've seen how very difficult this is. But having Professor Landon to lead the way and to demonstrate what we can hope for at the end of the trip is the best inspiration I could ask for. January 13, 2012
Rated 5 out of 5 by Recommended In our world of ever-smaller sentence fragments, instant messaging and contracted tweets, Professor Brooks Landon valiantly swims against the current and makes a compelling argument against a “less is more” trend in modern prose. He contends that longer sentences, built with a rich texture of nouns, verbs and modifiers strung from a sentence kernel in articulate cumulative strings, are pleasing to the ear and convey greater meaning than shorter sentences. His treatment of grammar and rhetoric is methodical without being pedantic, and he uses plenty of examples from literature to explain his concepts. Reading the course outline for the downloadable audio version was an excellent way to follow each lecture and to review what was taught. This course is recommended for anyone interested in how to use descriptive prose. June 3, 2010
Rated 5 out of 5 by Fine Series As a journeyman writer with twenty publications who has kept his day job, I make a point to study writing craft on a regular basis. I found Brooks Landon's course description intriguing, not the least because I have a connection to the U. of Iowa. More fascinating still, though, were the remarkably polarized reviews of his course. Some thought his lectures stilted, simplistic, and sophomoric; others thought them intelligent, intriguing, and insightful. It seemed impossible for him to fit both paradigms, so I felt compelled to decide for myself. Wow. These were fine lectures. Landon knows his stuff. Sure, he promotes "long" sentence building, but he makes it clear it's not how long a sentence is, but how you make it so. He sprinkles his work with untold examples, scholarly asides, and humorous interjections. He covers loose or cumulative sentences, suspensive or periodic sentences, balanced sentences, duples, triples, and more, and makes them all come alive. I am currently finishing my second go-round on these talks, and I find them outstanding. Of course, I'm a writer and love good advice on writerly craft. This fit the bill for me, and I can see the results in my own work already. I can only wonder at the motives and background of the naysayers. May 31, 2010
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