Deconstructing stylish sentences

During a recent move, I found a box of my dusty, old notebooks from my middle school years. Peppered in with the typical angst of a teenage girl (does he like me? do I like him?) are stunning sentences from Austen, Emerson, Morrison, Dostoevsky, Woolf, Baldwin, Pasternak and more. From way back, I’ve been an admirer and collector of stylish sentences—sentences that transported me, illuminating a dimension of existence that I sensed, but didn’t believe was true until I read it.

My love affair with the sentence continues. As a writer, I still collect sentences, but now I take them apart to understand them. One of my favorite classes to teach is Style in Fiction because we get to swim around in one extraordinary sentence for an inordinate amount of time; because we deconstruct sentences and study their inner workings; because we can use the same architecture to create our own sentences; because the day is so much better when you hear a beautiful sentence singing in your ear.

I’ve gathered sentences I’ve collected and my ideas about them in External link opens in new tab or windowHow to Write Stunning Sentences, which was published in 2018. In it, I look closely at the elements of style, as well as different schools of style, including surrealism, minimalism and maximalism, magical realism, and humor. I’d love to share one idea with readers of Often, the magic of syntax comes down to one word.

In his book, External link opens in new tab or windowDraft No. 4: On the Writing Process, John McPhee explains his approach to revision. If all goes well, he reads the second draft aloud, “removing the tin horns and radio static that I heard while reading.” If a word doesn’t seem quite right or presents an opportunity, he draws a box around it. Then he goes hunting for a better word, “the search for the mot juste.” He doesn’t grab his thesaurus—which can lead to polysyllabic and fuzzy words—but the dictionary. And not just any dictionary. He uses External link opens in new tab or windowMerriam-Webster’s Collegiate. He suggests you avail yourself of any dictionary that includes a thesaurian list of synonyms and provides differences between the synonyms.


Recently, I’ve reached for the online External link opens in new tab or windowOxford English Dictionary, available through the university where I teach. What a trove! A writer’s delight! The OED gives you fistfuls of gifts: the etymology, examples from the past of the word’s usage, and thesaurian lists. In a recent story, I’d written, “The boy might be dangerous.” I looked up “dangerous.” The OED handed me “perilous,” “hazardous,” “risky,” “unsafe,” “hurtful,” “injurious.” “Perilous” sounded good, so I looked it up and got another list of words.

The right word can make a sentence memorable, and, by extension, a story unforgettable. (I looked up “memorable” because I didn’t want to use it twice and got, among other things, “not to be forgotten.”) Though I don’t know if Grace Paley used McPhee’s method of revising draft #2, her writing is over-brimming with le mot juste.

In her short story “Love,” the narrator writes a poem about love and tells her husband about it. The husband then recalls all his many loves, starting at the age of fourteen.


Then he told me about two famous poets, one fair and one dark, both now dead when he was a secret poet working at an acceptable trade in an office without windows.

There is the lovely parallelism of the phrase, “one fair and one dark,” along with the rhythm, the two hard stresses “one fair,” followed by the soft stress, “and,” followed by two hard stresses. But what makes this sentence striking are the words “secret” in “secret poet” and “acceptable” in “acceptable trade.” Why are these words there? What work are they doing?

When I look up “secret” in the OED, I get pages of definitions and synonyms—”kept from knowledge,” “hidden,” “concealed,” “retired,” “affording privacy or seclusion,” “not openly avowed or expressed,” and the external organs of sex, as in “secret parts,” to name just a few.

In terms of plot, this is the first time the narrator’s husband—the couple has been married for over fifteen years—has revealed his history of love affairs, so the word “secret,” so slyly snuck in before “poet,” works not only at the sentence level, drawing attention to his secret life as a poet, but also to his secret love life.

“Acceptable” sends me traveling down the External link opens in new tab or windowOED‘s hallways to find: “pleasing,” “agreeable,” “tolerable or allowable,” and the list goes on. This, too, fits the story perfectly. The husband presumably found the work tolerable, and, in terms of the plot and story, the husband’s revelation about the poets doesn’t cause the narrator concern. It’s the next confession that will get the husband in trouble when he tells his wife about Dotty Wasserman, who made her appearance during his marriage to the narrator.

After the candid exchange with her husband, the narrator heads out to buy groceries, and here we have more memorable diction.


Walking along the street, encountering no neighbor, I hummed a little up-and-down tune and continued jostling time with the help of my nice reconnoitering brain.

The “up-and-down tune” beautifully depicts the literal sound of her song. But it’s doing other work, too. It’s the perfect word descriptor for the story. The narrator is happy, having written this poem about love, but she is about to encounter someone from the past, a woman who stole her best friend, and so the plot will soon take an emotional downward turn.

Then there’s the word “reconnoitering.” Reconnoiter is usually used as a verb, but Paley polishes it up and makes it an adjective. The External link opens in new tab or windowOED says: “to make an inspection, or take observation of (an enemy, his or her strength, position).” In a non-military context, it means “to survey or explore a district or area to learn its character, geography, etc.” Again, the word is perfect for what the narrator is about to encounter. In fact, the fall-out with the woman and her best friend had to do with politics.

I look up “jostle”: “to come into collision with,” “to push and shove.” Once again, the word beautifully prepares us for the narrator’s forthcoming encounter.


I’m a little embarrassed to tell you how much time I spend roaming the many tunnels of the Oxford English Dictionary, reading how Shakespeare, Hardy, O’Brien used a word, then looking up the synonyms of words. Then another word. Of course. Gustave Flaubert would walk around for days, searching in his mind for the right word. To most people, I suppose that’s weird. To me, that seems heroic.

Try John McPhee’s technique of revision. Read your second (or third or fourth draft). Put a box around the words that don’t feel quite right or that present an opportunity to introduce more—such as reflecting the plot. Open the right dictionary and start searching for the right word. 


{Nina Schuyler’s How to Write Stunning Sentences is a Small Press Distribution nonfiction bestseller. Her novel The Translator won the Next Generation Indie Book Award and was a finalist for the William Saroyan International Writing Prize. Her first novel was a finalist for the Northern California Book Award. She teaches at the University of San Francisco and at External link opens in new tab or}

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