Write for the Jugular

Alas, Poor Sentence . . .

The Sacrifice of Isaac, by Ludovico Cigoli

It’s the perfect phrase. Just perfect. Sums up everything you want to say in three or four marvelous, pithy, asteroid-strength words.

That’s why you’ve just spent 381.43 hours and 12,000 words writing a build-up to it. Only to find out the writer’s No. 6 nightmare — your perfect sentence doesn’t fit.

If you have never looked your once-in-a-lifetime, manna-from-heaven phrase in the eye and whispered to it a sweet good-bye, you haven’t yet earned your stripes as a writer. Little is harder for a writer to let go than a block of words that actually makes some of his naughty parts tingle.

Do us all a favor. Let it go. No sentence or title or description of a tree is worth the cost to the rest of your story. You’ll just end up chasing the prom queen, which means that even if you get her, you’ll end up losing your self respect for one chance at satisfaction. And you’ll find out soon enough that she wasn’t worth the trouble.

There’s an easy way to tell when you’ve been infected by the perfect-phrase bug: You fall in a sort of adolescent love with a small grouping of words that do not make up an idea on their own. They just sound good together.

Typically, great lines that don’t fit in end up slumming in mediocre poems. Don’t do this to good writing. If you write frequently enough, your patience might one day be rewarded. But don’t push it. I promise you it will never work if you push it.

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