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

Lecture Titles

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What's Included

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Video DVD
Instant Video Includes:
  • Download 24 video lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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Video DVD
DVD Includes:
  • 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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Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer's Craft is rated 3.8 out of 5 by 319.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful journey back into the world of writing I purchased this course for the purpose of reintroducing myself to the fundamental foundation of writing, crafting a good sentence. After watching the first two video lectures I became engrossed in the material provided. The content of each lecture was thorough, concise, and easilly comprehensable. Professor Landon does a masterful job of breaking down a sentence into its basic parts, explaining the proper use of grammer and punctuation, and exploring the elements of style. Professor Landon then shows the viewer how and why the information is relevant and important. I am very pleased with the knowledge I gained from taking this course, and I am excited about seeing the influence this course will have upon my writing in the future.
Date published: 2020-01-23
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Long-winded and incredibly boring On watching the first few lectures, to say that I was dumbfounded is no exaggeration ! I could not believe how 'wordy' and rambling the lecturer was. So much so that I soon lost touch with whatever he was trying to impart, and engendered in me a tendency to 'nod off'. This would have to be close to the worst Great Course I have purchased. I shall return it for a refund, and certainly can not, in any way, recommend it. A much, much better course on creative writing is Dorsey Armstrong's course (#2133) 'Analysis and Critique...'
Date published: 2020-01-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Enthusiastic professor. Step-by-step advice. This topic has caused me to re-consider my own writing style. I plan to put his advice to good use in the book I am writing. Its not often that you get truly new advice on sentence structure. I'm glad I bought this DVD.
Date published: 2019-11-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course, and I have a PhD in English I've finished almost all the lectures now, and have found them very interesting with great examples and detailed explanations of terms. I learned much of this information in my PhD program, but needed the reminders and found that I'd been getting in some bad habits with my fiction writing when it came to not writing as many suspensive sentences as I should. I write contemporary fiction, and most of the examples are from classic literature. While much of the advice works well if you're writing nonfiction or academic articles, such long convoluted sentences are not accepted or encouraged in contemporary fiction. Other than that, a course like this that makes you think about language in different ways can really add value to someone who works with words all the time.
Date published: 2019-11-12
Rated 1 out of 5 by from A Complete Waste of Time This course is built on the premise that long sentences that start out convoluted, wind back upon themselves to further obfuscate the meaning, continue to build on the confusion already created, then further provide meaningless verbiage to insure that any resemblance to the grammer and sentence structure with which you are familiar is so muddled that the meaning is forever lost in a tangle of excessive verbosity. Besides that he uses too many words. The poorest course I have taken from Great Courses
Date published: 2019-10-16
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not What I Was Hoping For I enjoy great writing, but this series by Professor Landon was much too appreciative of long sentences that go on page after page. I agree that some of these sentences were interesting, but most of the time they became tiresome.
Date published: 2019-07-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Vindicated, exonerated and declared innocent I am a retired practitioner in a field of business, working on my third book, always thinking there is something off beam with my preferred writing style, frustrated with the concept of the short sentence, breaking up my expressions and making them appear like a patchwork quilt, plagued and locked into a style dictated by the requirements of writing my master’s thesis, missing the benefits of being an English major and the wisdom of excellent professor, until now. I feel vindicated, exonerated and declared innocent after taking this course. Thank you Professor Landon
Date published: 2019-07-02
Rated 1 out of 5 by from THE worst Great Course I have ever bought I am a author and thought that this course would improve my writing. How mistaken I listened to this entire course (painful) the repetition and content were NOT helpful in the least.
Date published: 2019-06-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent examples Proves the point of how properly constructed longer sentences can substantially enhance one's writing. A bit repetitive at times but he uses numerous and excellent examples to prove his points.
Date published: 2019-05-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Real Eye Opener! I am mesmerized by the information presented in this course! The anatomy of the sentence and what it can become in the skillful hands of writers is astounding, wonderful and exciting!
Date published: 2019-05-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating course I’m getting valuable info from this course, my writing will certainly be much improved. I wish the screen wouldn’t darken when I press the pause bottom as I like to re-read some of these very interesting sentences.
Date published: 2019-04-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent I bought this course over three weeks ago, and I am enjoying it.
Date published: 2019-02-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Awesome! This is a Must Do course for anyone interested in writing great sentences.
Date published: 2019-02-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I really like the instructor This course is going step-by-step on how to create great sentences. The instructor is enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and easy to understand - a major concern since I have substandard ears. The course is picking apart examples from literature and clearly explaining what works well and why. It is just as I'd hoped.
Date published: 2019-02-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Reminds me of the way great writers write. A good and informative course. It will change the way I write. I only was reminded of Sister Mary St. Arthur standing at the black board diagramming sentences once or twice.
Date published: 2019-02-09
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Regret I wish I had never purchased this course. This professor is a cheerleader for long convoluted sentences. Some of his examples are so long that the reason for the sentence is lost before the reader reaches the end. I was hoping for instruction on sentence construction; syntax, grammar & spelling. This course covers none of that.
Date published: 2019-02-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good review This is an excellent review of sentence construction.
Date published: 2019-01-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great product Only done a couple lessons so far but have learned a lot of things on how sentences can help make your writing better.
Date published: 2019-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent resource I picked up this course in preparation for my University English Comp 2 class. The foundation and jump ahead I got from this course is invaluable. It helps to love to learn reasons why English does what it does.
Date published: 2019-01-20
Rated 1 out of 5 by from No Subtitles This course could be creamy chocolate ice cream and lathered up in tons of whipped cream, but since it does not have subtitles it is melted mess to me. Yes, I noticed I can pay an extra 15.00 for a transcript. Really? With Great Courses being a well known entity as it is, why in the world would it not cater to the hard of hearing/deaf people? I received this course as a gift, and was excited to start on it. You can imagine how frustration can sneak in and rip the excitement out of you when you rely on subtitles to watch anything. I realize this is my opinion, but I should not have to pay 15. for a transcript when the course should come subtitled. So, that is why I am giving this course a 1 star. Great Courses, you need to step up your game.
Date published: 2019-01-02
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Boring course and inadequate guide to writing It felt like a dry freshman English composition course that focuses on technical terminology and forms than providing practical information and skill training on writing.
Date published: 2018-12-31
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I found the professor’s lecturing style very wordy and a bit overbearing
Date published: 2018-12-28
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Too long winded. The author makes a simple subject both complex and boring.
Date published: 2018-12-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very interesting course Most of my career has involved writing technical reports intended for a highly educated audience, and my style reflected that approach. Now that I am writing my first book, this had to change. This course is perfect, leading me to assess my own work very differently, with the added benefit that I am gaining added appreciation for the books I am reading, and the skills of their authors. I bought and watched the DVD, which was a good idea, but listening to the audio in the car also definitely helps to cement the message.
Date published: 2018-11-01
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Boring I bought this course a few years ago. Although I only listened to 4 or 5 lectures, it was almost useless and boring.
Date published: 2018-10-24
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Not helpful for writers The course was very deary and unhelpful. There are many things that a sentence can do, but finding out what they are from this course, if it is possible, is not worth the time trying to get there... you will be asleep first.
Date published: 2018-09-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A course in writing that actually helps you Very helpful course, this course gave me the toolset to analyze my own writing and correct some major issues I was having. This course is maybe what you best could call a rethorical writing course - it looks at how ideas/propositions are presented.
Date published: 2018-08-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I learned a lot! Thank you. It was very informative.
Date published: 2018-07-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I purchased this for my husband who is writing a book. He finally got time to listen to the first CD and states that "It is exactly what I needed." Thank you Great Courses--you made me a heroine!
Date published: 2018-06-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Gifted and Passionate Instructor I am a novice writer of novels, but am finding "Building Great Sentences" very helpful. I suspect even experienced writers will benefit from this material as the course emphasis rhetoric over grammar. My writing has already improved as I employ the lessons I've learned and I'm only half way through the course. The instructor is easy to listen to and passionate about the subject. I'm very satisfied with this course.
Date published: 2018-06-13
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