Good sentences don’t make good writing

Amy J. Devitt, Ph.D.
7 min readMay 21, 2017
Alex Eylar, Sentience Structure, flickr, licensed by CC 2.0

Tell me: Which of the sentences below is a good sentence?

“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”

[Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960]

“It was October 23, 2008.”

[Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise, 2012]

“Why are there so many robots in fiction, but none in real life?”

[Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, 1997]

“I am ten years old and I know every crack, bone and crevice in the crumbling sidewalk running up and down Randolph Street, my street.”

[Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run, 2016]

“Too often, the word rhetoric implies empty words, manipulation, deception, or persuasion at any cost.”

[Cheryl Glenn, The New Harbrace Guide, 2018]

“Not long ago we attended a talk at an academic conference where the speaker’s central claim seemed to be that a certain sociologist — call him Dr. X — had done very good work in a number of areas of the discipline.”

[Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, They Say/I Say, 2017]

“On the fifteenth of May, in the Jungle of Nool, In the heat of the day, in the cool of the pool, He was splashing . . . enjoying the jungle’s great joy . . . When Horton the elephant heard a small noise.”

[Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears a Who! 1954]

“Written genres have been described in metaphors as seemingly contrary as straitjackets and playgrounds, tools and life forms, institutions and constellations.”

[Christine M. Tardy, Beyond Convention, 2016)

“One of the most central notions in this book is that of a formal system.

[Douglas R. Hofstadter, Godel, Escher, Bach, 1979]

​Each of these sentences is the first sentence (after prefaces and introductions) of a book sitting on a bookshelf in my study.

And each is a good sentence.

Of course, you say. They’re all written by professionals, published authors. So of course they’re good sentences. I’d be happy to write sentences like that.

Amy J. Devitt, Ph.D.

Writer, teacher, researcher, optimist. I explore language & everyday genres to help people see & choose the language & genres they use.