Additional Elements and Exercises for Good Writing Help (page 4)
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.
Use the Epistolary Form
Letter writing is an art, and writers frequently use the form as a structure for poems, essays, novels, and nonfiction work as well. Richard Hugo's volume of poetry, 31 Letters and 13 Dreams, surprised critics with its intensity and intimacy. Writers often publish "open letters" in magazines and newspapers as a way of reaching others. President Obama did this shortly after his inauguration. His "A Letter to My Daughters" (www.parade.com/news/2009/01/barack-obama-letter-to-my-daughters.html) explains why he ran for the presidency. His explanation reveals the reasons he respects and loves his country and its democracy as well as his hopes for the future his daughters will inhabit. A recent bestseller, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, tells the story of survival during WWII through the letters of a writer who goes to an isolated British town to do research. Kit Bakke's creative nonfiction work Miss Alcott's E-mail: Yours for Reform of All Kinds is the story of how the author imagines Louisa May Alcott e-mailing her wisdom and advice on how to live the second part of one's life.
In Bakke's book, after the speaker writes to Miss Alcott the first time and proposes a correspondence, she imagines Miss Alcott writing back:
…I admit that the singularity of this potential interchange is most intriguing. You say we are communicating across "time zones" in a way much imagined, but never reliably accomplished. I will have to take you on faith for that, as the concept of time zones in not familiar to me, although the railways are rumored to be trying to do something about time. Perhaps your letter is related? You say we are inhabiting different centuries? If so, this could be the most amusing correspondence I have had in years.
Whether you write poetry or prose, writing letters is a valuable way to exercise your creative writing muscle.
Think of someone you wish could write you a letter, whether that person is alive, dead, real, or a character in someone else's book, play, or television show. Write a letter to that person. Have that person write back to you. Imagine that person talking from the conditions and places in his or her life. Use those details.
If you'd like to choose an inanimate correspondent, try writing from the point of view of an instrument you no longer play or from the point of view of an article of clothing in your closet. What you learn from the mouths of the inanimate can be very surprising.
A Note on Voice-- It Will Come When You Employ the Elements of Good Creative Writing
Many people who write talk about looking for their voice or finding their voice. There are people who spend years and years looking. It can become something that preoccupies them to the extent that they don't develop their writing, so concerned are they about their voice. My own advice is write, practice the elements of good writing, experiment with the genres as we will in the next section of this book, and you will notice your voice in each piece.
When the elements of good writing are all in place and the do-nots are vanquished, "voice" emerges—the distinctive sound a particular writer makes on the page or has his or her characters make. Voice results from word choice, from the choice of details and situations presented, from the figures of speech employed to evoke a speaker's, narrator's, or character's age, background, location and place in time, and from the grammatical mix of sentence syntax a writer's feelings adopt. The use of personas; specifics, images, and metaphor; scenes, dialog, and lyric techniques contribute heavily to voice, producing vivid, engaging work. When you concentrate on developing a knack for using the elements of good writing, you are instinctively finding and expressing your voice.
If you are talking about what impassions you, your voice is usually compelling. When you trust what occurs to you, you do not try to control what you say; you are in flow with your idiosyncratic, association-making mind. You sound right, at least to the heart, if not to the socialized being that you have become. Think about phrases you have heard people blurt out in anger or in surprise. When the editing part of the brain is not involved, the true voice speaks. Although in writing you will edit eventually, it will not be to edit out the sound of the true voice but what interferes with it. If you go about editing too soon, before enough material is on the page, your editing self will usually chop away at the idiosyncratic, "unsocialized," unique sounds on the page. But if you wait until you have much that is original on the page, your editor self can go about making sure the words your passionate self wants to use are clear and without muddle.
In Telling Writing, Ken Macrorie writes, "If you can find the feeling that belongs to a piece of writing you want to create, then the composing may be accomplished almost without your help, and it will be true in tone, and compelling."
By using your developed writing muscle in conjunction with honoring and not discounting the images your unconscious mind throws onto the page, you will come closest to finding the true feeling in your writing and believing in it. Sometimes that voice may seem sloppy at first or difficult to shape on the page. Feelings are like that. But sharing your work with trusted first listeners, those who will offer their feelings as they read what you've written, rather than ideas for "fixing" what you have written, can help you learn to trust your voice by allowing you to experience their interest and connection to what you have written. That's how you learn to hear where the feeling is.
Be Patient With Your Writing
It is important to think about writing in stages—inventing, shaping, and editing. I learned this from poet David Wagoner. He told his classes that at first when you come to the page, you must come as an inventor, open to any possibility, any starting point, image, or crazy idea that flows out. Then, you look at what you've invented with a shaper's (writer's) tools and find the spark that you can ignite into more writing. Finally, after you have that writing, you may come as the editor who is concerned about sentence structure, punctuation, and other rules. These are important to polish in your writing, but only after there is uniqueness. If the editor persona enters the process too soon, the voice will be wiped right out of the writing—because voice is shy and editors are not, because voice isn't rule bound and editors are, among other reasons.
This is how best-selling (over thirty published novels) author Holly Lisle writes about voice on her website www.hollylisle.com:
Your voice does not exist in the thin and cheap places of your heart or the shallow end of your soul. Voice lives in the deep waters and the dark places of your soul, and it will only venture out when you make sure you've given it space to move and room to breathe.
That means taking risks, which Lisle thinks of this way:
Choose to write about themes that your internal editor insists are too dangerous, too controversial, too embarrassing to be put on the paper. Imagine that your mom (or your other toughest critic) is looking over your shoulder with a raised eyebrow and a prudish expression on her face. Now shock her.
To write well, you must feel uncomfortable. Why else would you be setting words down when you could just go play tennis, talk on the phone or clean the house? Lisle is passionate when she tells us:
Voice is born from a lot of words and a lot of work—but not just any words or any work will do. You have to bleed a little. You have to shiver a little. You have to love a lot—love your writing, love your failures, love your courage in going on in spite of them, love every small triumph that points toward eventual success. You already have a voice. It's beautiful, it's unique...Your job is to lead it from the darkest of the dark places and the deepest of the deep waters into the light of day.
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