Additional Elements and Exercises for Good Writing Help (page 2)
Vary Sentence Length and Subject-Verb Positions; Use Parallel Construction
Here is a passage from my memoir, A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief.
With the box of Seth's ashes by my feet on the passenger side of the car, I realized that I wanted to take pictures of the wedding site, so we stopped again to buy a disposable camera. One hour outside of Denver, snow was falling over aspens. When Seth was a student in Colorado, we had visited him here and hiked this forest. We sat on rock ledges in spring and in fall, quiet and dwarfed, overlooking the Continental Divide, feeling overwhelmed by the majesty we were viewing. My life now was a Continental Divide. One continent with Seth on the earth with me; the other one without him here.
When I read this passage, I notice that the first three sentences start with prepositional or adverbial phrases that modify the subjects I, snow, and we. Then the next two sentences have a simple subject-verb structure: "We sat on rock ledges;" "my life now was a Continental Divide." And I end the paragraph with two sentence fragments joined with a semicolon. Each fragment has noun phrases but no verb. So, I have varied sentence length and subject-verb positions in groups. My last group of two fragments sounds right to me because it is a description of a fragmented life.
Write a passage about a time that you felt the reality of something that had happened—something tragic or joyful, frustrating or mysterious. If your sentences sound good to you, check out what you are doing with your sentence construction. Try to see where you have varied construction and where you have repeated it.
If your sentences sound dull, see what you can do to create a variety of sentence lengths and word positions as well as introductory phrases. Can you combine some sentences to make things interesting? Can you add modifying material by using the "-ing" form of words (participial phrases such as "feeling overwhelmed by the majesty") as I have?
See what happens when you change things from dull to more varied:
This kind of editing can come after you have written. In doing the editing, you start to hear music where it may have been lacking before and you rekindle your interest in the passages you are writing. When you sound interesting, your readers will be more interested and apt to continue reading what you've written; but most importantly, when you realize you can make yourself sound interesting on the page employing sentence variety, you will be less upset with the sound of your first drafts and you will keep writing, knowing you can go back and make new sound on the page.
The ear likes both to recognize what is coming and to be surprised by how what comes is different than what the ear expected; the ear likes to feel it is on a ride, a sail, is in hiding or dancing in the sunlight, whichever rhythm, tone, and sound most evokes the mood of the subject. Some of this sound will come naturally as you immerse yourself in your subject; but often we have to go back to our work, and, like a conductor guiding an orchestra, help our words do their work.
In Spunk & Bite: A Writer's Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language & Style, Arthur Plotnik illustrates the value of using phrases and expressions to mark particular styles of speech. He reminds us, "As distinctive ways of saying something, locutions tend to be judged on their aptness, inventiveness, color, sound, rhythm—the qualities that stimulate us, that make expression fetching or thrilling."
In writing fiction or writing in persona, we must assign different characters different ways of phrasing things so everybody doesn't sound the same (and just like the author). When we write about others in nonfiction, it is important to have them sound like they characteristically sound, not like we want them to sound (or like us). This kind of attention to the voices of others pays off, making our writing memorable and entertaining to readers, helping them think of specific people in their lives who sound like those in ours, and also allowing them to enjoy the idiosyncratic nature of those we put into our writing.
To write well, we must also notice our own characteristic phraseology, the sound of our thinking. If it isn't as vivid and interesting as possible, we must look for the reasons. Do we use the same words over and over when other words would make sharper distinctions (in other words, are we being lazy with our vocabulary—not that higher diction words are better than lower diction words, but "thing" is often better replaced with a specific)? Do we not pay attention to our use of "this," "that," "also," "in order to," and "so"? Do we use lots of words to describe something when a well-chosen metaphor would be more interesting?
Here's an example of poor locution from that first draft a student wrote about value in an educational setting:
The people who live in this environment must take the role of an intellectual. They must first be intelligent. Without intelligence there will be no discussions, only foolery and actions. This is why honor codes only work in schools of the highest academic level. The students who go to those schools are at a high mental level that lets them go beyond what is in front of them and understand the world in a greater way. While intelligence will give the people the ideas and allow them to think of ways to spread them effectively, it is nothing without friendliness.
If this were my freewrite, I'd look back into it and ask myself about repetition. Does going from intellectual to intelligent to intelligence to high mental level and back to intelligence help me share my thinking? Does it help me think about my subject? Is there music to this that helps? In all cases, my answer is no.
What should I do next? I should invoke phraseology that shows who I am and what I mean:
What is the role of the intellectual and what furthers that person's ability to share his ideas, be heard, and consider the ideas of others? I believe that honor codes are of importance in fostering the comfort of an intellectual in pursuing his goals.
By taking out the constant repetition of words with the same root, I have reduced six sentences to two, but I have focused my work, and I see where I must go next. I must show what honor codes are and how they support intellectuals. I must show what intellectuals can do to foster their ideas. I have become a more interesting writer just by making my assertion succinct.
Arthur Plotnik would say I must use locution to make phrases that are "bell ringers." I might add to the two sentences this way:
When you've got an idea you want someone to love hearing it and tell you if it is not yet fully formed by asking questions and playing the devil's advocate. What better place is there to do this than in classrooms where grades and competition for them is not the overriding feature of learning? When I can say something stupid on my way to being able to win the Nobel Peace Prize or a Pulitzer, I am in the best company I can find.
Look at a report you have written recently or a letter or e-mail you've sent off. Underline words you have repeated. Decide whether the repetition is musical and makes the emotions of the work more vivid or if there is that "I am not thinking very deeply about this" sound to the words. First, tighten up your words; then, come up with some "bell ringers" to show your point—phrases a reader might start to find characteristic of your tone.
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