A dense yet splendid “style guide by stealth” that reads like a two-semester course in English composition distilled into a two-week treatise.
The question is how, apart from multiple readings, one might absorb all the wisdom in a single gulp. Moran (English and Cultural History/Liverpool John Moores Univ.; Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness, 2017, etc.) believes that by “mastering” one of the fundamental building blocks of language—the sentence—we learn not merely about writing, but about everything. It’s a sweeping claim, but Moran backs it up, giving us mostly trenchant sentences on the art of creating them. A sultan of syntax, he wants to show rather than teach, and he generally succeeds. He likens good prose to good poetry, both taking wing on the rhythm, meter, and music of language. Writing is an artisanal craft, or should be, employing meticulous care and execution. Moran extols the virtues of the plain style—like cooking, “a sentence should rely more on quality ingredients than baroque artifice”—but cautions against fetishizing the unadorned, introducing ways to make more elaborate sentences work. Whatever the style, good sentences give order to our thoughts and clarity to the reader, but they must also sing on the page and in the reader's mind. Moran links themes with illustrative asides, as in his short history of writing, but mainly, he critiques the common novice mistakes and veteran's misjudgments, demonstrating skillful alternatives. At times, the author will make even experienced writers feel inept, especially in his discussions of arcane grammatical terms. Still, his tone is comradely, not chiding. Oddly, one point Moran does not address is the element of talent. Everyone's writing can be improved, but all the technique in the world won't make a mediocre talent an exceptional one.
Moran writes fluidly and elegantly, offering practical advice on giving one's writing texture and verve.