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First You Write a Sentence

by Joe Moran

Software engineers write tickets, pull-request reviews, and architecture decision records. Some even write documentation. We spend about 30% of their time writing and the more senior you get, the more you write. It’s an essential skill that we rarely actively develop.

I’m not confident in my writing because English isn’t my first language. My ability is limited, and so my writing is as bland as the design of this website. I write this blog to practice and improve, and I read about writing: Ernest Gowers Plain words focusses on correctness, word choice and grammar. Gowers wrote Plain Words in the late 1940s and early 1950s for civil servants to make government communication more efficient and effective, which is why the book often reads like a well-written letter from the Home Office. Lapsing Into a Comma by Bill Walsh is a style guide, initially written for writers at the Washington Post, focussing on grammar and punctuation. Neither book will teach you what is more critical to good writing: Writing sentences and paragraphs that flow.

First You Write a Sentence is different. Author Joe Moran focuses on the sentence and how to write a sentence that reads well. It starts with a premise: When we read, we all have this inner voice that reads the text to us, so we need to write as if we’re writing a speech. Write short sentences using short and simple words. Then add longer sentences because they make your writing less monotone and dull. From there, we learn how to string sentences together to form paragraphs and whole articles and books. Moran asks us to avoid awkward transitions to guide the user from one thought to the next because the reader is smart enough to follow our ideas. And we learn that it’s not the act of typing words that makes good writing. It’s editing, the art of re-arranging words, whole sentences and even paragraphs; often removing them and only sparingly adding new ones.

Unlike with other writings about writing, there was never a time when I had to drag myself just through that one chapter. That’s because Moran draws connections from writing to arts, design and life. Whether that’s how Frank Sinatra sings or Bill Evans plays the Piano, Kevin Lynch’s Image of the City, or Don Norman’s Design of Everyday Things.

“You think you care what this book is about, but really you care how it sounds. You are reading it for its sentences,” Moran writes early in First You Write a Sentence. I liked how this book sounds; I enjoyed reading its sentences. I want to write like Joe Moran.