Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer's Craft

Course No. 2368
Professor Brooks Landon, Ph.D.
The University of Iowa
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Course No. 2368
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Review (or learn) the basics of grammar, rhetoric, and sentence building as a foundation for telling a story.
  • numbers Explore how prompts can help readers engage and build emotional connections with characters and situations.
  • numbers Get tips on how to pace, delay, and reveal a plot point or twist in order to build suspense.
  • numbers Examine the structure, style, and sequence of sentences, and create sentences that articulate clear points of view.

Course Overview

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.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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

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  • Download 24 video lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 136-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 136-page course synopsis
  • Sentence diagrams
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

Brooks Landon

About Your Professor

Brooks Landon, Ph.D.
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...
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Reviews

Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer's Craft is rated 3.8 out of 5 by 323.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Functional writing course — superbly useful I’m a PR Manager and just a lover of writing. This is one of my favorite courses because it’s so useful for me professionally and personally. This is certainly not just a course to listen to while driving or lounging around. To get the most value out of this course, you have to really set some time to the side and dedicate yourself to some immersive study, getting the transcript of the course too. If you can master coordinate cumulative syntax, your writing will improve leaps and bounds. I highly recommend this course!
Date published: 2020-11-22
Rated 2 out of 5 by from A very narrow view of what makes good sentences. In a word, this course is "verbose," which may be appropriate given the thesis it tries to defend. The professor posits that long sentences -- specifically when written in the cumulative syntax form -- are superior to short sentences in that they are both more efficacious and more elegant. I think every part of this thesis is debatable. But even it you accept it at face value, this course has problems. If the course had ended at lesson 12, I would have reviewed it more favorable. But it drones on and on for another 12 lessons, each lesson just slightly refining and embellishing the course's main thesis with no consistent train of thought. I understand, as the professor reminds us, that the sentence is the fundamental unit of writing. Without good sentences, we cannot have good writing. But stringing a series of good sentences together does not alone make good writing. The purpose of sentences, indeed the purpose of writing, is to tell a story. It is the ability to tell a story well, that makes for good writing, and a good writer brings to that task of variety of sentence styles and structures to suit the particular needs of the story. It seems to me that the cumulative syntax style is just one of many sentence styles that a good writer has in her writer's toolbox. This particular tool works well when a lot of details and description are needed to describe a person, place or situation. But frequently, too much description and detail weights down a story, inhibiting it from flowing freely, burdening it with a lot of unnecessary information. As Francis Flaherty cautions in his book "The Elements of Story": No detail belongs in a story if it doesn't serve some role therein. Or as Stephen King, an author who know how to hold a reader's attention, puts it: "In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it 'got boring,' the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling." What is true of boring books is also true for boring courses. This professor has become so enchanted with the cumulative syntax sentence structure, that he has described it to death, at the expense of all other sentence styles and writing strategies. In so doing, he has made what otherwise could have been a very interesting an informative course, quite tedious and boring.
Date published: 2020-11-10
Rated 2 out of 5 by from A rare miss for TGC After purchasing and enjoying other great courses on topics like astronomy and music, this was disappointing. First, and I know it sounds petty, but the author's very odd (and most ironic for an English course!) mispronunciation of the word "sentences," which he invariably pronounces as "sin-in-zizz," was most distracting. I was half an hour into the course before I realized the apparent neologism "sin-in-zizz" that I couldn't decipher was supposed to be "sentences." As others noted, kind of dull and listless monologue (I have the audio CD's). Some worthwhile info to be sure, and I must admit my writing may be a little better (most of mine has been Ph.D. level in social sciences), but cannot recommend. Every other TGC course I've taken was far better with far more clear and dynamic speakers or presenters.
Date published: 2020-10-13
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Incredibly boring I was hoping to improve my writing skills for a book I am writing. This was so boring I gave up after a couple of lessons. By the way I have a BA in English.
Date published: 2020-10-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Elegant writing Good course. Pushes writer to explore more than just short sentences.
Date published: 2020-09-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So Far, So Good I'm taking a session a day. Each one builds on the last, and they have been very helpful with my writing. The instructor is brilliant; even funny. I especially like the short homework assignments. No one loves homework, but the assignments really reinforce the lessons.
Date published: 2020-08-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Significant Enrichment This course added a significant enrichment to my understanding of the function of sentences and their relationship to the "theory" of paragraphs and the "hallucination" of novels.
Date published: 2020-07-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Building Great Sentences Great course and it only confirms my view that brief sentences are for the uneducated.
Date published: 2020-04-18
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