You breathe without thinking. When you write, you make sentences in the same manner.
So, to make better sentences–which means different from the ones you’re writing at present–it behooves you to learn to breathe differently.
Read, if you wish to write.
First, read the best — Nabokov, Bellow, Helprin, O’Connor, Frost, I know you’ve heard those names. When you read them you enter into the cadence of their writing, their breathing. And it affects you.
Here are some I’ve been drawn to that aren’t as widely appreciated:
Lee K. Abbott.
Texas. Football. Girls. Hubris. Divorce. Disappointment.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Speeches and writings. Oh my. Visuals. Writing meant to be spoken. Spoken words that live in the air. You want to write commercials on the TV you’ve got to write sentences people can see. Not even poets do it as well as he did.
Shalom Auslander. This is a book of short stories. He also just wrote a memoir. They read the same. God, profanity, self-disgust. It’s like looking in a mirror.
Lynda Barry. Cartoonist & writer.
I’m not much of a woman.
So when Ms. Barry is writing about the interior struggles of a young woman I should probably feel as if I don’t get it.
I do, though.
The comic strip format can train your mind not only for sentences but for film sentences.
The word balloons and having to know what’s being seen while somone is talking is crazy good for you.
Go look in the basement for your old ones. Read the Sunday paper.
Let this in as far as you can. Maybe you’ll be lucky and it will unman you enough that you’ll pick up Emily Dickinson again.
Wendell Berry. Farmer. You can tell.
Heck, this could go on for pages, boring you into losing your interest in sitting down with just one writer and letting his or her breathing sound in your head.
Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, Saul Bellow, P.G. Wodehouse. Wislawa Szymborska, Lucille Clifton...
p.s. If you start with a Jeeves book by P.G. Wodehouse you’ll be happy you did.
Second, read wildly. Willfully read what it would not occur to you to read. It is like cross-training. You get better at swimming by the less specific work your muscles receive while playing basketball. Same thing in reading/writing. Your brain gets bigger as it rises to the challenge of taking in what you’ve not fed it before.