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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

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Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer's Craft

Course No. 2368
Professor Brooks Landon, Ph.D.
The University of Iowa
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3.8 out of 5
269 Reviews
67% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 2368
  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is not heavily illustrated, featuring nearly 100 graphics and illustrations. These graphics and illustrations help you diagram and visually grasp the structure and merits of a variety of sentences, from the elaborate coordinate cumulative sentences to the rhythm of sentences when seen (and read) in sequence; they also help you better understand specific punctuation choices for creating balance and suspense. While we recommend the video version and believe that the included visuals greatly enhance Professor Landon's presentation, audio customers report being highly satisfied with their experience as well.
Streaming Included Free

What Will You Learn?

  • Review (or learn) the basics of grammar, rhetoric, and sentence building as a foundation for telling a story.
  • Explore how prompts can help readers engage and build emotional connections with characters and situations.
  • Get tips on how to pace, delay, and reveal a plot point or twist in order to build suspense.
  • 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
 |  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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DVD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 136-page printed course guidebook
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  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
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CD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 12 CDs
  • 136-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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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 269.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Skillful Guidance I bought this class to hone my writing skills. Through carefully crafted lectures filled with plentiful concrete examples, I learned many techniques for improving the quality of my sentence writing which in turn has helped me become a more confident writer.
Date published: 2017-10-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful! I bought this course a few weeks ago, and really love it. The professor presents the material in a well structured manner, making it simple to follow and with his sense of humor, makes it enjoyable to learn. I particularly love the many examples he provides from a variety of writings and find they illuminate the points he is making vividly. While building sentences could be a very dry topic, the professor presents the information in a manner that conjures the magic of sentence structures and how to use the alchemy of the structures to create effects. Yes, the magic of sentence structure.
Date published: 2017-08-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from BEST GREATBOOK EVER I was a little hesitant to purchase a course about writing a sentence, figuring I was a bit more advanced than that, but deep down inside I knew I needed help in organizing my thoughts and writing good sentences. The author delivered 100 times over. I feel enlightened, as though some secret mystery of writing was revealed to me, a mystery I had never before grasped, and suddenly I feel empowered to express myself more adequately than before, a drudgery becoming a pleasure. I've listened to this course maybe six times, and it never gets old, always delivering more information with each listening. What's fascinating is the author delivers his lecture using the same sentence structures as those that he teaches in this course, and when listening to him you begin to realize how very clear his lecture is to understand, experiencing not just what he is preaching you to do but what he is also delivering to you in his verbal prose. In a very short time I went from not being able to write a very good 10 word sentence to writing much longer, fuller and clearer sentences, building them up and providing "accumulating" information, information that adds to the meaning and clarifies my intention. If you have a hard time writing good sentences this is an easy-to-follow treasure trove of information that surely will enlighten you, and as a bonus you will get a sampling of magnificent authors, listening to their delightful sentences.
Date published: 2017-08-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A great course for better writing Being trained as an engineer to write short and precise sentences, this course greatly helps me to write longer sentences for better articulation of a subject dealing with human life, learning various techniques of building sentences, overcoming fear of writing with confidence, instilling a desire to write long sentences, so helpful in writing my dissertation in theology. Prof. Landon's lectures, though little too technical for me, are excellent and entertaining with many examples and techniques that can be readily applied in writing better sentences, already evident in my writing.
Date published: 2017-08-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Best Writing class I have ever taken. This course is dynamic, logical and focused. The professor backs up everything he cites with prolific examples and where he gives a personal choice, he states his reasons. I have worked diligently through lecture 12 and having learned in grammar school how to diagram sentences, his approach to writing works great for me. In view of the poor training school students receive today in grammar and rhetoric, such that they often fail when attempting to write a clear, concise composition, the professor's review of this foundational material is very helpful. I particularly like his emphasis upon creating a bond between the writer and reader with sentences which reveal deeper insights into motivations of a character. (As a mystery and suspense fan I have at times faulted writers for not playing fair with the reader in placing "clues" or using "red herrings.) There is also a focus on achieving an individual style and rhythm to writing, which, with practice becomes second nature. I am excited to continue with this course, as I have so far learned a great deal about improving my own writing. Thank you so much for making this material available!
Date published: 2017-07-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A gift of awareness I have always had an interest, but little skill, in writing. When I came upon "Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer's Craft" in the course catalog, I found the allure of the title, with its explicit promise to explore the craft and seductive suggestion of greatness, too compelling to resist ...... it did not disappoint!
Date published: 2017-07-03
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Content OK but not well presented The content is acceptable but not the presenter. I find it extremely bothersome to have to hear the presenter present a course on sentences but not pronounce the word "sentence" correctly. He continuously pronounces the word "sentence" as "sennence" without pronouncing the "t.". This blows his credibility as far as I am concerned. It is akin to an English teacher saying , "I ain't gots none." This should be re-made with correct pronunciation. If I could have given a rating less that one I would.
Date published: 2017-07-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A 4.6-Star Course With a lifelong chip over being priced out of the American university system, I began noticing ads from The Great Courses in the Nation Magazine and the New York Times Book Review around 2011, particularly Building Great Sentences. I was born like this, unable to remember a day unconsumed by the writer's drive. "Manic?" Probably. But without the slightest gift, I needed to go to school. After enormous difficulty (living entirely on Social Security) paying for this first great course, five years later I suddenly find several dozen in my collection: sensational offerings on mathematics, literature, and reasoning that help with pronunciation, the foundations of thought, operations from one discipline to another, plus the style methods of contemporaneous university professors. So I'm able to compare Building Great Sentences with other great courses, while observing generally that if you can't get to the university, this company's business model will bring it to you. Professor Landon settles into a solidly polished presentation and sustains the steadily cumulative narrative until his final flourish of purring whitewater after a crescendo of mounting enthusiasm! I haven't seen anything quite like it in the range of other types of Great Courses. There is an element of math to his method; though not explicitly, his syntactical conceptions are based on a Cartesian coordinate graph. And the professor is not teaching English at the "news copy" level, because there are no diversions into the Ws or spinning triangles or all of the deadbeat limitations that modern professional journalists are strung by. For the poor soul who wrote in a review attacking the professor personally because s/he couldn't find any humor, Professor Landon speaks with a giggle and my face was cramped with smiles throughout. The professor's genre is science-fiction, and mine couldn't be farther from it, but it made no difference. Nor did his regional dialect. I found no distractions. My first experiences with this course (and The Great Courses, in 2012) were 30-minute segments that, unlike the great math courses, I needed weeks to chew on. So my first viewing took nearly six months. And those first few lectures were like a torpedo into my heart, undoing an epoch of personal law, which may explain some of the negative reviews—when new law rises, old ones break—because the first viewing capsized a former sense of power I had clung to for decades, believing without reason certain superstitions about -ly adverbs, or -ing suffixes ("editors hate 'em"), gramma's tales left over from the days before electric typewriters. All of the style masters Professor Landon mentions (except for the big-time literati and Strunk and White) were entirely new on me. With the Great Courses, you surely get your money's worth when you don't recognize a single name in the bibliography. The second time through, one year later with the guidebook, Professor Landon taught me how to write a sentence. I had never imagined such a thing as a kernel, and am still learning it as a beginner. The DVD format is a must, because printed words, like chesspieces, have aesthetic properties; and although many intelligent and talented people have done well with the audio format, it seems to generate the harshest and most misleading reviews. Sentences, defined by a capital letter and a period, are certainly the largest identifiable prose structure, because two editors will find arbitrary paragraph breaks in the same piece; and the same editor will find different ones a second time through . . . the exact same piece. Assembling the building blocks of reason is more of a lawyer's job than a writer's, and TTC offers great courses on argumentation (#4294), logic (#4215), and mathematical proof techniques (#1431). Math, Philosophy, and the Real World (#1440) is also helpful with theoretical approaches. I have all of these excellent courses, but felt no need to explore writing any further beyond Building Great Sentences. The novelist's takeaway are not run-on sentences at all—we are not mimicking the professor or his examples—but rather this course provides the tools to expand a sentence to perhaps 10,000 words, if you'd like. Professor Landon never advocates writing only sentences that stretch over several pages, and he concedes that these monsters rarely occur. This is merely his teaching method. And he is a great teacher. Fewer words will always do, something anyone can manage. For short, nasty, punchy sentences with edge and grit, please turn on the Lone Ranger and listen to Tonto drop his articles; or for real language from the gutter, just about any R-rated movie today, after the sounds of chases, gunfire, and explosions, will provide plenty of "short" sentences! Some feel the course dies midway, while others find the "meat" of the course occurring after this point. It took two viewings for me to find Building Great Sentences a unified whole. And after finishing this course a second time, in these past five years, I thank the professor daily whenever I see his ideas in what I read and write. Addressing content, presentation, and value, while I'm 100% with the voice who concludes, "I would recommend this course for those who are passionate about developing their writing skills and syntactical strategies," I ask the admirable lifelong learner wondering whether to part with good money: please factor out those who have spiked Professor Landon with one star and a whole bunch of daft acerbities, and please adjust the math behind the overall rating, because this is a 4.6-star course.
Date published: 2017-06-18
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