What if I told you that a 200-page prose poem is the most useful guide to writing that I've come across in ages? Before you run away shrieking, consider the man behind the effort. New York Times contributor and editorial board member Verlyn Klinkenborg—the versatile author of three books on farm life, immigration, and reptiles, respectively—takes a Neruda-like approach to dispensing advice. Several Short Sentences About Writing consists of occasionally startling, always opinionated statements and questions that aspiring wordsmiths would do very well to consider.
"This is a book full of starting points," notes Klinkenborg in his prologue, and each could keep a literary debate team busy for hours: "Pay attention to rhythm, first and last"; "Most of the sentences you make will need to be killed. The rest will need to be fixed"; "'Inspiration' is what gets you to the keyboard, and that's where it leaves you." His guidance ranges from nuts-and-bolts practical to lyrically philosophical, but three clear messages ring throughout: Write short. Always revise. Never stop reading. As Klinkenborg observes, "You're not responsible for your readers' ignorance, and they're not responsible for your erudition." That smarts a little. But you know he's right.
In my years of working with authors, I've often defined the editor's role as "a conduit of clarity": Sift out the sediment, polish the gold nuggets, and leave no trace of yourself behind. Klinkenborg counsels writers to accomplish the first two steps themselves by asking questions, making lists, crafting sentences in their heads before marking them down, and avoiding the common traps of jargon, chronology, and expectation. "Your job isn't to arrange chunks of evidence, chunks of the world in the order you gather them," he cautions. "Your job is to atomize everything you touch."
To his point, Several Short Sentences About Writing need not be read from front to back. Dip in anywhere you'd like—you'll find gold. Then maybe you'll start spinning some of your own.