Deliberate Practice for Authors: Justine by Lawrence Durrell

Deliberate Practice for Authors: Justine by Lawrence Durrell
Photo by George Hiles on Unsplash

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking great planes…

I have escaped to this island with a few books and the child — Melissa’s child. I do not know why I use the word ‘escape’. The villagers say jokingly that only a sick man would choose such a remote place to build. Well, then, I have come here to heal myself, if you like to put it that way…

Deliberate Practice for Authors: Justine by Lawrence Durrell. In this post we take a brief look at the opening of his novel Justine, and consider why it is effective and what I learned from it. I don’t like to presume you will learn anything, though you might.

Sentence Structure

Here is a link to my annotation scheme.

[___ , ( )]

[( ) ___ ]

[ ( ) , ( ) , = ( ), ( ) ]…

[___ ( = ) — ( )].


[___( ) > ( )].

[( ), ___, (^ )]

We see that he rarely writes a bare sentence. Most of them have additional clauses at the end of the beginning. They do not seem to have been written as periodic sentences, with sub clauses at the beginning and main clause at the very end. A periodic sentence generates tension until the end when we find out what it’s about.

Nor is Durrell writing cumulative sentences though 1, 3 and 6 approximate to them. A cumulative sentence gives the impression of an orderly unpacking of thought and can create a pleasant almost echoing rhythm with a string of clauses at the end.

It does not appear that Durrell is using much artifice at all in his writing. He uses the word “wind” twice, not as a rhetorical device, but almost carelessly.

He seems to be a Romantic rather than a Crafter. That’s fine; it’s still a nice piece of writing that conjures a lovely scene, and makes us curious about the situation.

Sentence Length

[*******, ******.]


[********, ****, ********,***…]





The sentences are very similar in length. Durrell does not appear to be deliberately varying their length for prosodic effect.

Literary & Rhetorical Devices

Aphorism: In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of spring.

Aphorisms sound true and lend gravity and authority to the author. They may not be true. They may be nonsense. Still, they lend gravity.


unpacking the great planes, ransacking great planes…

With a rhyme ‘unpacking’ ‘ransacking’ thrown in.


I have escaped. But who am I? He gives us a pronoun before the noun is properly introduced, withholding information and creating mystery and interest.


Bringing in the sense: vision mainly, though the ghost of the sound of the wind is present.

Sentence Fragments.

None of the four clauses have a main verb.

A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking great planes…

End with an ellipsis … . As if petering out, as if there might have been a main verb, but the writer got too wistful to write it. It makes you think there are things unsaid, that might be said in future. It piques curiosity.

What Have I Learned?

For me the beauty in this short piece of writing does not lie its sentence construction. Nor does it lie primarily in its sound: There is some beauty in the slight rhetorical use of repetition, to be sure, but the most engaging beauty is in the enargia.

Durrell uses sensory description to conjure a place, and with a place, inevitably, a mood– somewhat wistful with melancholy remembrance of something lost, ad fragments being recovered in an attempt at reconstruction.

The beauty is also in the prolepsis: that mystery and curiosity generated by the use of a pronoun without a proper introduction to the man.

The allusions to a fractured past are well done too. Tolkein creates a whole world like this in his Lord of the Rings. Tolkein creates impressions of depth and resonance by hinting at a back history which appears rich but he does not reveal.

Durrell does this here.

Who is Melissa? Who is her child? Why has he ‘escaped’? Why does he need to heal?

In this short introductory passage Durrell raises four questions begging to be answered.

We readers are prepared to stay with the writer until he satisfies our curiosity, or we become disappointed and leave anyway.

Deliberate Practice for Authors: Justine by Lawrence Durrell

Deliberate Practice: Ray Russell, Sardonicus

Ray Russell’s Sardonicus. Deliberate Practice For Authors.

In the late summer of the year 18—, a gratifying series of professional successes had brought me to a state of such fatigue that I had begun seriously to contemplate a long rest on the Continent.

I had not enjoyed a proper holiday in nearly three years, for in addition to my regular practise, I had been deeply involved in a program of research, and so rewarding had been my progress in this special work (it concerned the ligaments and muscles, and could, it was my hope, be beneficially applied to certain varieties of paralysis) that I was loath to leave the city for more than a week at a time.

Being unmarried, I lacked a solicitous wife who might have expressed concern over my health; thus it was that I had overworked myself to a point that a holiday had become absolutely essential to my well-being; hence, the letter which was put in my hand one morning near the end of that summer was most welcome.

Ray Russell, Sardonicus

As I normally do, I will try to look at this writing from a number of angles.

Sentence Length

[********,***************************.] 35

***********,*******,**********,*********** (******,**,****,********)****************]. 76

[**,*************;*********************;*,******************] 40

It’s worth saying that some short sentences may have long words, and so it might be worth counting syllables rather than words. I will bear this in mind for future analyses.

We can say that Russell likes long sentences. Certainly here anyway, and that might be because he is deliberately doing a pastiche of the prolix Victorian style. He doesn’t even mix short sentences with the long ones. They are all long.

Clause Distribution

See annotations scheme here

[( ) , ___ > ___ ] .

[___ , ( ,( ), )], [ = ( (, ( ), ) ) > ___ ( ) ] .

[ ( ) , ___ > ( ) ] ; [ ( ) > ( ) > ___ ] ; ( ), __ ( ) __ ].

I have just come from reading Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and you can hear my narration of it on The Classic Ghost Stories Podcast here, and am in the process of reading out A Christmas Carol here, so I’m pretty Victorianated currently.

Henry James was very fond of sentences with sub-clauses bombed in the middle of the main clauses, and sometimes he even stuck a sub-clause inside a sub-clause. This makes him very hard to read out loud, and perhaps to read to oneself too.

Ray Russell does it, but in less jarring a way.

Here’s James from The Turn of the Screw, Chapter 1.

[I slept little that night(I was too much excited); =and this astonished me, (too), (I recollect), (remained with me), (adding to my sense of the liberality > with which I was treated).

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw, Chapter 1

[___ ( )] ; [= ___ ( , ( ) , ) , ( ) , ( ) ( ) ]

Here’s Russell from Sardonicus again.

[I had not enjoyed a proper holiday in nearly three years], ( for ( in addition to my regular practise) , I had been deeply involved in a program of research), = and [( so rewarding had been my progress in this special work (it concerned the ligaments and muscles, ( and could ), ( it was my hope ), be beneficially applied to certain varieties of paralysis) > that I was loath to leave the city for more than a week at a time].

{ ___ , ( ) , ( ) = , ( , = ,( ), ( ) ) > ( ) __ ]

Even though we have clauses within clauses in Russell, the additional thoughts flow naturally, while in James they inserted sub-clauses give the impression of ideas popping off at tangents. With James, we need to drag our attention back to the main sentence to remember the subject he’s talking about, with Russell we don’t.


Alliteration is not particularly prominent, but there is a run of s sounds, and then some r in the first paragraph




…loath to leave


Rhetorical Devices

Apparently, no rhetorical devices in this piece.

Stress Pattern

u u S Su u u S Su, u SuSu Su u uSuu uSu u S S u u S u S Su u u u Su Suu u SuSu u S S u u SuS.

u u u uS u Su Suu u Su S S, u u uSu u u Suu Su, u u S Su uSu u u Su u uS, u S uSu u u S u Su u u Su S (u uS u SuSu u Su, u S, u u u S, S SuSuS uS u Su uSuu u uSuS) u u u S u S u Su u u u u S u u S.

u uSu, u S u uSuS S u u u uSu uS Su u S; S u u u u u uuSu Su u u S u u SuS u Su uuSu uSu u u uSu; S, u Su u u S u u S u Su u u u u u Su u S Su.

What Have I Learned

I have learned that it is possible to write long hypotaxic sentences using polysyndeton that remain clear and flow well. The important thing is to have each clause provide further information on the one immediately preceding it, rather than refer to a subject in a clause that is not next door.

If you do that the piling up of clauses does not detract from the sense of the writing.


Here is a good review of Sardonicus by Ray Russell written on That Shakespearean Rag blog.

A more critical review of Sardonicus is here from Mark Fuller Dillon

And below is an opportunity for you to purchase the book itself. I should note that this is an affiliate link and I will get a small reward from Amazon if you buy it after clicking this link. My affiliate reward will not add anything to your purchase price.

Sentence Analysis of Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Deliberate Practice: Something Wicked This Way Comes

Today, I will do some sentence analysis of Something Wicked This Way Comes. . What is it about his sentences that makes his prose here so appealing.

The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm. He came along the street of Green Town, Illinois, in the late cloudy October day, sneaking glances over his shoulder. Somewhere not so far back, vast lightnings stomped the earth. Somewhere, a storm like a great beast with terrible teeth could not be denied.

So the salesman jangled and clanged his huge leather kit in which oversized puzzles of ironmongery lay unseen but which his tongue conjured from door to door until he came at last to a lawn which was cut all wrong.

Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes

Diagramming Sentences

Sentence Analysis can be complex. One method of breaking down a sentence is to use a sentence diagram.

You will know that I am fairly convinced that what makes us think a sentence is good arises from the sound and rhythm and only marginally from the sense of the words.

Despite that, I considered whether it would be worth attempting to diagram the sentences.

You remember that a formal sentence analysis diagram shows a sentence by its grammatical components. So:

Sentence Diagram
WikiCommons License

However, I’m not sure that this kind of sentence analysis adds anything to understand the prosody: how the prose flows and sounds nice.

It may have some use in understanding how the author puts together the sentences, in fact, it probably does. However, the technical look of the diagram may actually be a barrier to understanding to those who are not familiar with sentence diagramming already.

In the same way, there may be a wonderful analysis of a piece of writing written in Arabic, but if you don’t read Arabic, it’s not much use to you.

I think I will give up sentence diagramming for now.

Sentence Analysis: Length






Sentence Analysis: Structure

Refer to the Anotation Scheme

[___( )]

[___ ( ) ( ) ( )]

[( )( ) ___]

[( )___( )___]

[___ ( ) = > ( ) ( ) ^ ( ) > ( )]

Here we see a baby cumulative sentence with one clause after the main clause ___ ( ) and then we see a nice cumulative sentence __ ( ) ( ) ( ) which has a lovely rhythm. The next two sentences are front-loaded with dependent clauses.

The final sentence is another cumulative sentence ending in a trail of dependent clauses strung together with coordinating and subordinating conjunctions and relative pronouns.

A good cumulative sentence lets the rhythm settle like an echo fading away.

Sentence Analysis: Grammar

See here

  1. Noun Group (subject) + Verb + Adverbial of Time
  2. Pronoun (subject) + Verb + Adverbial of Place + Adverbial of Time + Adverbial Participial Clause
  3. Adverbial of Place + Adverbial of Place + Noun Group (subject) + Verb + Object
  4. Adverbial of Place + Subject + Simile Noun Group (re-stating the subject) + Verb (passive)
  5. Conjunction + Subject + Verb + Verb + Object + Relative Pronoun + Conjunction + Relative Pronoun + Verb + Adverb + Conjunction + Relative Pronoun + Relative Clause + Adverbial Clause + Subordinating Conjunction + Subordinate Clause + Preposition + Object + Adjectival Clause

I’m not sure what that tells us.

Sentence Analysis: Rhetorical Devices

See here

Anaphora: “Somewhere not so far back,…” repeated “Somewhere, a storm…”

Alliteration: Lots of l and s. Does that sound like a storm?


“terrible teeth”

Somewhere not so far back…stomped. Somewhere a storm…salesman”

Assonance/Rhyme: “jangled and clanged” “street … Green”

Use of Doubles, Triples: Very often a writer will use two adjectives or two nouns or two verbs coupled with an “and”. These doubles are not essential to the sense of the writing, and are used to either add detail, or most often improve the sound.

So: “jangled and clanged” say more or less the same thing. They are included for the sound not the meaning.

Of course sometimes doubles and troubles add both sound and meaning to a piece of writing.


Again, this is to my ear, reading aloud.

  1. u Su u Su S uSu u uS u u S.
  2. u S uS u S u S S, SuS, u u S Su uSu S, Su Su Su u Su.
  3. Su S u S S, S Su Su u S.
  4. Su, u S u u S S u Suu S S S u Su.
  5. S, u Su Su u S u S Su S u S SuSu Su u SuSuu S uS u u u S Suu u S u S uS u S u S u u S u u S S S.

Unless it is my ear, there are no remarkable patterns here. Some iambs.


The main clause tells us the bones of what is going on.

“The seller…arrived…”

The subordinate clauses add description. Technically >of lightning rods< is not a clause or even a fragment, but it adds description to the “seller”, so I’ll use one word for the bits that add detail.

Ultimately I wonder whether nounds, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions are really distinct things in our mind. All we see is a process wherein the subject, object and verb (not to mention the indirect object) are indissoluble. When I touch a glass vase, I only have one experience and the division into what part of that sensation is glass and what part of that sensation is me is very post hoc. There is no division in experience, only in processing and naming. Same with verbs, subjects and objects.

The seller (of lightning rods) arrived (just ahead of the storm).

All the clauses add a bit more detail to the picture. The author can choose where to put the clauses, more or less, and it is this choice that affects the rhythm of the prose and sets up patterns of metre or alliteration or any other rhetorical device.

“He came along the street (of Green Town(, (Illinois), (in the (late) (cloudy) (October) day), (sneaking glances over his shoulder).”

All the words in parentheses are not strictly necessary. However, they make the picture of the event clearer in our mind.

We may say that the white in a Monet painting is not strictly necessary, or the salt in some soup, or that quaver in a Mozart piece.

They’re not necessary, but without them the picture is impoverished.

But we could re-arrange the clauses for rhythm and other effects.

(Sneaking glances over his shoulder), (in the late October day), (along the street of Green Town, Illinois), the seller of lightning rods came.

Or …came the seller of lightning rods.

That inversion of verb is just what they do in German and Dutch most of the time so it’s a relic of English’s West Germanic roots.

And putting the main clause at the end would make it a periodic sentence.

A cumulative sentence tells you what it’s about straight away, and thus no Zygarnik tension, no unclosed loop. We expect information and until the bare bones sense of the sentence is transmitted we remain slightly anxious.

The cumulative sentence relieves the anxiety straight away, and then adds detail to our delight in a sort of cannon shot that echoes pleasingly in th valley.

The periodic sentence witholds the key information until the very end, maintaining our tension, so even though we get the additional information we rush by it, wanting to know what this is additional to.

The the cumulative sentence is like a cannon shot that echoes away to nothing, the periodic sentence is like waiting for the firing squad.

So it seems it may not just be about sound and rhythm as I have put forward elsewhere.

This is an affiliate link, so if you buy this, it helps me.

Here‘s a review of Something Wicked this Way Comes from The Guardian

Deliberate Practice: Pride and Prejudice. How Jane Austen Writes So Well.

Deliberate Practice: Pride and Prejudice
Photo by Paolo Chiabrando on Unsplash

Deliberate Practice with Rhythm and Music.

Deliberate Practice: Pride and Prejudice.

I have been doing my own deliberate practice for almost a year by copying out the works of great writers by hand and analysing the beginnings of great stories and working out why the writing sounds so good.

Rather than putting it down to inspiration, I have tried to seek out the signs of writerly craft.

What is the secret to arranging the words in so sonorous a way?

I have tried to cut the cake in so many ways: from diagramming sentences, studying clauses, to perusing all the periods. But still, the essence of the good writing eluded me.

I am not talking about the meaning of the words. Writing is good not because of what the writer says, but the sound of how they are saying it.

For a while, I tried looking to see whether patterns of adverbial clauses or appositive clauses made a difference, but concluded it wasn’t the type of clause.

The arrangement of clauses rather than their type definitely makes a difference. Both cumulative and periodic sentences (see here) are effective, and they are all about clause position.

After much pondering, I think it’s not the clause type, but the pause introduced by clauses that matter: it’s the rhythm.

It’s not the semantics, but the music that matters. Music is made up of rhythm, repetition and melody,

We already know that rhetorical devices work. Rhetorical devices are to do with symmetry, repetition and sound effects rather than meaning.

So, I think it’s not the clause type that matters, but the spaces in between, the intakes of breath.

Music is all about patterns. I ears hear rhythm and repetition without any need to analyse, and we find it pleasing. I think pleasing writing appeals for the same reasons.

I may be wrong, but I think I’m onto something.

Let’s look at Jane.

Deliberate Practice: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

Not all that Mrs. Bennet, however, with the assistance of her five daughters, could ask on the subject was sufficient to draw from her husband any satisfactory description of Mr. Bingley. They attacked him in various ways; with barefaced questions, ingenious suppositions, and distant surmises; but he eluded the skill of them all; and they were at last obliged to accept the second-hand intelligence of their neighbour Lady Lucas. Her report was highly favourable. Sir William had been delighted with him. He was quite young, wonderfully handsome, extremely agreeable, and to crown the whole, he meant to be at the next assembly with a large party. Nothing could be more delightful! To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love; and very lively hopes of Mr. Bingley’s heart were entertained.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, Chapter 3

Sentence Length


[******; ***, **, **;********;*****************.]






We know that the alternation of long and short sentences is pleasing. She does that here.

Clause Arrangement

See here for key to annotation scheme.

[( >, (), ) __ ].

[__ ( ,,, ) ; ] [ = __ ] ; [= __ ( ) __ ].

[ __ ].

[ __ ].

[ __ , ,] [= ( ) __ ].


[__] [= __ ].

I’m not sure that tells us much. Jane alternates simple sentences with more complex, clause-ridden ones and uses coordinating conjunctions to chain her sentences ( “polysyndeton”).

Deliberate Practice: Pride And Prejudice: Rhythm And Metre

I have to do this by ear. Also, stresses in English are not all the same; there are secondarily stressed syllables as well as stressed and unstressed ones. To show that might be a little confusing, however, so I have satisfied myself with only showing the two.

So, by my ear:

[ u S u u S u # u S u # u u u S u u u S S u # u S u u S u u u S u u S u u S u S u S u S u u u S u u S S u]

[ u u S u u S u S # u S u S u # u S u u S u S u # u S u u S u # u u u S u u S u u S # u u u u S u S u u S u S u S u S u u u u S u S u S u]

[ u u S u S u S u u u ]

[u S u u u u S u u u ]

[ u u S S # S u u u S u # u S u u S u u # u u S u S # u S u u u u S u S u u u S S u]

[S u S u S u S u]

[u u S u S u u u S u S u S S u u S # u S u S u S u S u S u S u S u S]

Of course uSuSuS are iambs: x / x / x /

The next common one is ‘uSuuSu’ which is an iamb followed by an anapest followed by an unstressed syllable. I don’t know what you call this.

But Austen uses this ‘uSuuSu’ a lot at the beginning and then stops, falling into a more generally iambic rhythm. In any case, there patterns of repetition in the rhythm. Just like in music, the ear delight in establishing a rhythm and then departing from it in predictable ways.

Alliteration and Assonance

We have considered the beat, let’s now listen to the melody.

[. . . . ., ., . . . . . . d, . . . . . s . s . d . . . -d. . d. . . ]

[. . . . . .; . . . , . s, . d s; . . . . s . . . ; a . . a . . a. . s. . . . l l ]

[ . . . . .]

[ . . . . d . . ]

[ . w . . , w h, . . . . h, h . . . . . . ]

[. . . .d]

[. . . d . . . s s . . l, . . l . . . . . ]

If we look at alliteration and the accent we get:

[ u S u u S u # u S u # u u u S u u u S S u # u S u u S u u u S u u S u u S u S u S u S u u u S u u S S u]

I didn’t do the rest because it was plain to see that though the alliteration often coincides with the accent (the stressed syllables), this is not always so. They work independently.

Rhetorical Devices

In considering formal rhetorical devices, and there are so many I may have missed some, we have a tricolon: four syllables; eight syllables; five syllables, so not an ascending tricolon.

They attacked him in various ways; with barefaced questions, ingenious suppositions, and distant surmises;

Another tricolon.

He was quite young, wonderfully handsome, extremely agreeable

This is two syllables, seven syllables and and seven (to my ear the -le is syllabic, not part of the -ble syllable. Again, it isn’t an ascending tricolon (e.g. Friends, Romans, Countrymen! where each item has more syllables than the one before).

And she has an aphorism. We love aphorisms, pithy generalisations that make the world seem predictable. I have an inkling that we like them in the same way that we like conspiracy theories, they serve to make an unpredictable world seem certain.

I have my own aphorism then:

“Aphorisms make unpredictable patterns seem certain truths”.

Like the idea that:

To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love

It may be nonsense, but there’s something about an aphorism that sounds true, even when it obviously is not.

Deliberate Practice: Pride and Prejudice Conclusion

Jane Austen’s writing, here and probably elswhere, delights us because she skilfully uses the music of prose, the rhythm of accent, and the melody of alliteration and assonance. She also throws in some old rhetorical devices known to be crowd pleasers since at least the time of Cicero.

The next tip is how to manage these tricks ourselves.

In essence, I seem to be saying: trust your ears not your eyes. But then I believed that anyway.

Deliberate Practice: Moby Dick. Analyzing The Opening

Here we begin our analysis of the first part of Moby Dick. What makes the writing so good? What techniques does Melville use that please his readers so much?

Deliberate Practice Moby Dick

Deliberate Practice: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Deliberate Practice using Moby Dick. It’s a heck of a place to start.

Firstly, I am no expert. I am someone working on getting his writing better, and to do that, I am deliberately practising, by writing out and analysing what makes the masters masterful in their prose.

My deliberate practice in my writing actually begins with me writing out the passage by hand. I’ve done that. I have notebooks full of beautiful words written by other people, but here, on this page, I cut and then I pasted. Forgive me for my short cut.

Here we begin our analysis of the first part of Moby Dick. What makes the writing so good? What techniques does Melville use that please his readers so much?

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

Grammarly & Moby Dick

Grammary doesn’t mind Melville’s grammar much. It does think there should be a comma after:

“With a flourish, Cato throws himself…”

But this is because of the general introduction that any introductory adverbial clause (of manner) should be followed by a comma.

It doesn’t like his long sentence beginning “Whenever I find myself growing…” though to my mind, that’s what makes this passage special.

It thinks that ‘this’ in “This is my substitute for pistol and ball.” has an unclear antecedent, but I guess the antecedent is clear for most humans. The antecedent is this whole desire to get to sea to avoid melancholy and anger.

It finds his eighty-seven word sentence too long, but let’s give Grammarly a break. It’s only young. It’ll develop.

Sentences in Moby Dick

We know that by alternating short and sentences we can produce a mellifluous effect, so Melville begins with a short imperative sentence:

“Call me Ishmael.” Three words. Sentence length goes like this:

[*** ]

[ ********************************************** ]

[ *************** ]







3, 40, 15, 87, 8, 10, 6, 6, 26.

Short, long, middling, long, short, short, short, short, long. And this sounds nice.

Deliberate Practice: Moby Dick & Prosody

I mean by this, those aspects that deal with rhythm and sound: the music of writing, and though often thought of as being only relevant to poetry, prosody in prose is very important in making us think writing is great.

In the British Army, and possibly elsewhere, there is a saying: ‘bullshit baffles brains.’ In the same way sound often baffles semantics. Is rain right? Are cats curious? Were doornails even ever alive?

We’ve already begun to talk about prosody when we discuss sentence length.

Converting Moby Dick To Commas and Brackets

We touch on the battle between the Romantics and the Data Dudes here. Romantics believe good writing arises from the soul, prompted by the muse, almost divine in origin. To attempt to tamper with it is to misunderstand beauty.

Gandalf The Grey, that old Romantic, said:

He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.

But I’m not breaking Moby Dick, I’m analysing it. Of course analysis means unloosening, or unravelling.

We are looking for patterns and how to replicate them, but I suppose that reveals my belief that writing is craft not inspiration. Though, we know from other professions (such as nursing, Patrician Benner: From Novice to Expert), and from learning to drive, that once we have mastered something, the craft is no longer on the surface and might appear as inspiration when in fact it is just the mind and hand travelling well-trodden paths to achieve our result.

In this notation ___ is the main clause, and ( ) is a subordinate clause. These clauses can be split by breaths, sometimes shown as commas, but the clause organisation tends to indicate the rhythm.

[ ] mark the beginning and end of a sentence.

> is a essential relative clause

Also, I have said above that I’m interested in sound rather than meaning, and that good sound supplies the illusion of meaning, but I’m not super sold on that. Meaning has its place. In a periodic sentence we await the main verb through cumulus clouds of subordinate clauses, the tension of not actually knowing what the author is talking about until the end driving us crazy.

Think what it must be like for the Germans. All of their sentences are periodic.

So, a periodic sentence is going to look like this:

[ ( ), ( ), ( ), ( ), ___ ] .

For reference a cumulative sentence looks like this:

[ ___ ( ), ( ), ( ) ].

The ___ is where the punch of meaning lives. Let’s look at Moby Dick.

[ ___ ].

[ ( ) —( )— ( ) , ( ), ___ ( )].

[ ___ , ( ) ] .

[ ( ) ; ( ) ; ( ( ) ) ; ( (> , ) — ) , ___ ].

[ ___ ] .

[ ( ) ___ ] ;

[ ___ ] .

[ ___ ] .

[ ( ), ( ) , ( ) , ___ ] .

Deliberate Practice: Moby Dick & Rhetoric

Melville likes playing with the length and type of his sentences. Though as an aside, he doesn’t use cumulative sentences in this section of the book. A cumulative sentence has main clause, then a trail of subclauses so:

[ ____ , ( ) , ( ) , ( ) ] .

Melville also uses formal rhetorical devices.


—never mind how long Precisely—having little money in my Purse and nothing Particular to interest me on shore,

…the Watery part of the World. It is a Way I have

Damp, drizzly

strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street


Beginning a phrase with the same word or group of words.




Also the use of triplets and doublets, things repeated thrice or twice. He repeats whenever four times in fact. The fourth one is not at the beginning of a phrase so is not anaphora but is just ploce or general repetition.


A syntheton is two nouns or noun phrases joined by a conjunction. There is mostly no additional meaning to be gained by using two nouns, it’s merely a rhetorical effect and is used all the time by everyone.

little or no money

pistol and ball

some time or other

Arguably, the meaning would be the same if he just wrote:

no money


some time.

He uses the doublets for their sound, not their meaning.

Deliberate Practice: Moby Dick & Symmetry

…Cato throws himself upon his sword. I quietly take to the ship.

It’s not quite an isocolon (Roses are red. Violets are blue.)

It’s more like a chiasmus: (ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country)


We like the pithy stating of general truths. “All men are apes.” Even if, on examination, we find the aphorism fallacious, the nature of these brief, gnomic sayings seems to half convince us.

So, Melville says,

If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

No, I don’t, but he almost had me persuaded.

Deliberate Practice: Homework

Write three sentences. The first and last are short ones that can be declarative or interrogative or imperative, so ‘It is pasta,’ ‘Is it pasta?’ and ‘Call it pasta!’

The middle one is long and periodic. So, begin with a clause, then add another clause, then another clause, then another clause, then another clause. Go on as long as you want, then finish it with a short main clause. Remember the main verb is in the final clause then full stop, period.

[___] .

[ ( ), ( ), ( ), ( ), ( ), ( ) ___ ] .

[ ___ ].

And, if we are right, it should sound really good.

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Rhetorical Devices