Anna Spargo-Ryan is known for her beautiful way with words. Her novels The Paper House and The Gulf received critical acclaim, while her memoir A Kind Of Magic, released in October 2022, was shortlisted for the Nonfiction Book Award in the 2023 Queensland Literary Awards.
The Melbourne-based author, essayist and freelance writer, Anna was the inaugural winner of The Horne Prize and her short work has been published by the Guardian, The Big Issue, Good Weekend, The Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings, The Saturday Paper and many more.
Early in her career, Anna studied Freelance Writing 1 and Creative Writing Stage 1 at the Australian Writers’ Centre, and credits those courses with helping to set her up for career success.
“I learned fundamental industry skills through AWC,” says Anna. “Truly useful things like how to write a pitch or email an editor. I knew I loved to write, and I thought I had some level of ability, but I had no way to put it into practice until I did these courses.”
One thing that stands out as a hallmark of Anna’s writing is the beauty of her sentences and her ability to bring emotion to life on the page. With this in mind, during a recent interview with Anna about her writing practice, I asked her for three tips for writing beautiful sentences.
Anna Spargo-Ryan’s top 3 tips for writing beautiful sentences
Tip #1: The perfectly chosen 10 cent word has more impact than a five dollar word
Don’t be afraid of choosing simple words. A common, simple, even short word that everybody knows, executed, deployed in the right place and the right context can be transformative.
Tip #2: You should be able to hear the music of the sentence
Sometimes when I’m writing, I don’t know what word goes here, but I know what the cadence of the sentence is. Listen to the sound and the rhythm of the words. Not just the ones you’re currently writing – how does it fit in the overall symphony, the rhythm of the sentences around it? Look for the music in it. Listen to it. Writing is so much about listening.
The other part of that is dialogue. I love writing dialogue. That’s so much about listening too. Not only literally listening to how people talk and the way in which people interact, and the other things that voices do besides say words, but also listening to the words you’re writing down. The beat, the cadence.
I saw Joan Didion had said something like this – she used an X as a placeholder for words that are to come and had done this for a long time. Later, she realised that the number of Xs corresponded to the sound of the sentence. So she was leaving a gap for a word and, even though she didn’t know what word it was, she knew what it should sound like.
I found that really resonated with me. Sometimes you know what that motion should be before you even know what word goes there – and then you go back and fill that word in later, but you already know what the shape of that sentence is.
Tip #3: End before it’s over
There’s a quote from the American writer Stanley Kunitz, which really struck me: “End on an image and do not explain it.” That’s exactly what writing is. The implied part of writing. The finishing before it’s fully done. And that’s something that usually happens to me – when I get to the end of something, whether the end of an essay, the end of a chapter, the end of a scene – I can hear it coming before I write the words down. End before it’s over.
Allison Tait is the author of three epic middle-grade adventure series for kids: The Mapmaker Chronicles, The Ateban Cipher and the Maven & Reeve Mysteries. A presenter at AWC and former co-host of the So You Want To Be A Writer podcast, Al’s next middle-grade novel will be out in July 2023. Find out more about her at allisontait.com.