A Thousand Words To Create One Good Sentence

They tell a story of Thomas Wolfe when he lived in New York on First Avenue. Late one night the writer Nancy Hale, who lived on East 49th Street near Third Avenue, heard a kind of chant, which grew louder. She got out of bed and looked out of the window at two or three in the morning and there was the great figure of Thomas Wolfe, advancing in his long countryman’s stride, with his swaying black raincoat. As he went striding down the dark city street, he was chanting, “I wrote ten thousand words today – I wrote ten thousand words today.”

Well, wait until his editor Maxwell Perkins got hold of it!

There are stories of how Maxwell Perkins would arrive in Wolfe’s Village apartment–where Wolfe wrote standing up, using the top of the refrigerator as his desk–and Perkins would take boxloads of handwritten prose away with him, saying, “you’re done now, Thomas.” Perkins then would reshape Wolfe’s prose, much the way an artist turns stone into a sculpture.

Perkins also was Hemingway’s editor. Now, Hemingway might write 50 words a day when the writing was “going good,” as he would say, and then he would go fishing. Hemingway, however, was a great self-editor. Hemingway once wrote to Maxwell Perkins, “It wasn’t by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.”

See, Lincoln was our first minimalist.

When I was a student in the Writers Institute at Saint Louis University the director of the program said that the English Department had decided that if anyone could write a perfect sentence he or she would immediately be granted a degree. The problem was, he said, that a perfect sentence went unnoticed by English professors, as a perfect sentence is so transparent it doesn’t draw attention to itself.

One last comment on the difficulties of writing well, and this is from the fine novelist and short story writer John O’Hara [Appointment in Samarra, From The Terrace]. O’Hara was asked what he wrote one day and he replied, “Well, this morning I put a comma in, and this afternoon I took it out.”


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  • Try and imagine if Wolf and Hemingway had blogs. Wolf would be able to do his 10,000 words a day and Hemingway his 50. And Graham Green his 500 words.

    But the numbers are not important. It’s the search for perfection in a sentence or a paragraph that matters and drives us all mad. This perpetual fear that we will not attain perfection is the reason that, for some of us, the perfect sentence is the one unwritten. With or without O’Hara’s comma.

  • Ernie might blog about fishing. But would any of these writers (or any writer worth his or her salt) Twitter? That’s the question.

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