Writers On Writing / Smashing chaos into beauty: Inga Simpson on beautiful sentences

We interviewed Miles Franklin Award longlistee Inga Simpson ahead of her one-day workshop at Writing NSW, Writing Beautiful Sentences.

When writing, it is easy to obsess over one particular sentence and forgot your overall plot – ‘forest for the trees’, as such. How do you balance writing beautiful sentences and driving your story forward? 

For me, the beautiful sentences come later, in the redrafting. My zero draft is about just getting the story down, which I mostly don’t have mapped out. The next draft is trying to smash that mess into some kind of order, figuring out what the story is really about, and how best to arrange the scenes. It is only in the third draft that I focus on smoothing out the sentences. Which isn’t to say the odd nice one hasn’t turned up along the way, but the story has to come first.

What makes a sentence beautiful?

Beauty, when it comes to sentences, has many forms, I think. A stunning image is most obvious, but clarity can be beautiful, too. The sentences we remember often contain a truth, which we recognise. Like that lovely line from JD Salinger’s ‘A Girl I Knew’: ‘She wasn’t doing a thing that I could see, except standing there leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together.’

Students must bring a beautiful sentence from an author they admire to your course. Can you give an example of a sentence you personally adore?

I’m going to cheat and include two, but both short!

‘Lyle didn’t have moods, he had weather.’ ­– Jim Galvin, The Meadow.

‘The way she says my name is like a whole other life.’ – Deborah Levy, Hot Milk.

Inga Simpson is the author of Where the Trees WereNest and Mr WiggNest was longlisted for the Stella Prize and Miles Franklin Literary Award, and shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal. She is also the winner of the 2012 Eric Rolls Nature Writing Prize. Inga has a PhD in creative writing from the Queensland University of Technology and has recently completed a PhD in English Literature at the University of Queensland, looking at the history of Australian nature writing and its potential as an environmental strategy.

Writing Beautiful Sentences with Inga Simpson will take place at Writing NSW on Saturday 1 June, 10am-4pm. Book your spot here >

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