Several Short Sentences About Writing | Verlyn Klinkenborg

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What I’ve learned about writing I’ve learned by trial and error, which is how most writers have learned. I had to overcome my academic training, which taught me to write in a way that was useless to me (and almost everyone else).

Everything in this book is meant to be tested all over again, by you. You decide what works for you. [...] Part of the struggle in learning to write is learning to ignore what isn’t useful to you and pay attention to what is.

One by one, each sentence takes the stage. It says the very thing it comes into existence to say. Then it leaves the stage. It doesn’t help the next one up or the previous one down. It doesn’t wave to its friends in the audience Or pause to be acknowledged or applauded. It doesn’t talk about what it’s saying. It simply says its piece and leaves the stage.

Short sentences aren’t hard to make. The difficulty is forcing yourself to keep them short.

There are innumerable ways to write badly. The usual way is making sentences that don’t say what you think they do.

Many people assume there’s a correlation between sentence length and the sophistication or complexity of an idea or thought—even intelligence generally. There isn’t.

Most sentences need no preamble—or postlude.

Every word is optional until it proves to be essential, Something you can only determine by removing words one by one And seeing what’s lost or gained.

Most of the sentences you make will need to be killed. The rest will need to be fixed.

No two sentences are the same unless they’re exactly the same, word for word.

Discovering those nuances, and using them, are parts of the writer’s job.

The purpose of a sentence is to say what it has to say but also to be itself, Not merely a substrate for the extraction of meaning.

You were taught in school that each sentence Rests on all the others like a single card in a house of cards, A carefully constructed house of logic, Fragile and easily dislodged.

Why were you taught to dwell on transitions? It was assumed that you can’t write clearly And that even if you could write clearly, The reader needs a handrail through your prose. What does that say about the reader? That the reader is essentially passive and in need of constant herding.

The obsession with transition negates a basic truth about writing, A magical truth. You can get anywhere from anywhere, Always and almost instantly.

Writing isn’t a conveyer belt bearing the reader to “the point” at the end of the piece, where the meaning will be revealed. Good writing is significant everywhere, Delightful everywhere.

A crowded sentence betrays the writer’s worry that the reader won’t follow the prose If parted by a period.

Every work of literature is the result of thousands and thousands of decisions. Intricate, minute decisions—this word or that, here or where, now or later, again and again.

Revise a sentence by Austen or Baldwin? Why not? It’s an experiment. Try it, and you begin to glimpse the inherent necessity binding the writer’s choices together.

The urge to write is so strong. Aspiring writers want so badly to be pouring something out of themselves. You need a place where you can practice noticing and making sentences— Observations of genuine clarity, Sentences of vigor, invention, and self-perception. That place would be your mind.

And yet you’ve been taught to make sentences In which inert verbs act abstractly upon faceless nouns, To write on a theoretical basis, which deprives the world of its content, And to use passive constructions, which absolve everyone of responsibility.

You may notice, as you write, that sentences often volunteer a shape of their own And supply their own words as if they anticipated your thinking. Those sentences are nearly always unacceptable, Dull and unvarying, yielding only a small number of possible structures And only the most predictable phrases, the inevitable clichés.

This is one reason to abandon the idea of inspiration. All the idea of inspiration will do Is stop you from revising a volunteer sentence. Only revision will tell you whether a sentence that offers itself is worth keeping. The writer’s job isn’t accepting sentences. The job is making them, word by word.

Most aspiring writers write too soon.

But writing isn’t performed upon a device or in a state of anticipation.

One basic strategy for revision is becoming a stranger to what you’ve written. Try reading your work aloud. The ear is much smarter than the eye, If only because it’s also slower And because the eye can’t see rhythm or hear unwanted repetition.

Try reading aloud some of everything you read, no matter what it is, A couple of paragraphs from the newspaper or a textbook or a novel or a poem. Especially a poem. This is how you begin to understand rhythm and its absence.

How well you read aloud reveals how well you understand the syntax of a sentence.

Read until your ear detects a problem. Stop there. How will you know there’s a problem? Something will sound funny. You’ll feel a subtle disturbance, a nameless, barely discernible tremor inside you.

Here’s another way to make your prose look less familiar. Turn every sentence into its own paragraph. (Hit Return after every period. If writing by hand, begin each new sentence at the left margin.)

And you can begin to ask questions—simple ones—that will help you understand how to revise And make better sentences.

  • How many sentences begin with the subject?
  • How many begin with an opening phrase before the subject? Or with a word like “When” or “Since” or “While” or “Because”?
  • How many begin with “There” or “It”?
  • What kinds of nouns do you see? Abstractions? Generalizations? Multisyllabic Latinate nouns ending in “-ion”? Or are they the solid names of actual things?
  • Is the subject of the sentence an actor capable of performing the action of the verb?
  • Can you adjust the sentence so it is? Or does the subject of the sentence hide the action of entities that are able to act—humans, for instance?
  • How close is the subject to its verb? Are they separated by an inserted phrase? What does that do to the velocity of the sentence?
  • How many of the verbs are variants of “to be”—“is,” “are,” “were,” “was,” and so on?
  • Are the verbs active, energetic? Or do they merely connect or arrange or present or relate?
  • Are the constructions passive?
  • How often does the word “as” appear, and in which of its many senses? Are you using “with” as a preposition or as a false conjunction, a false relative pronoun?
  • Are there inadvertent repetitions—words repeated unintentionally?
  • Is every phrase in its proper place, every word?
  • Is everything next to what it should be next to?
  • Anything outright ungrammatical? Words used improperly?
  • Do verbs that require direct objects (transitive verbs) lack them?
  • If there’s a modifying phrase at the start of the sentence, does it modify the subject of the sentence? (It must.)
  • Can the sentence be broken in two or three?

You don’t need to be an expert in grammar and syntax to write well. But you do need to know the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs. Between active and passive constructions. The relation between a pronoun and its antecedent. All the parts of speech. The different verb tenses. The nature of participles and their role as modifiers. The subtleties of prepositions—the hardest part of speech even for native speakers of English. You need a toolbox of rhetorical devices, like irony, hyperbole, And the various kinds of analogy. You need an ever-growing vocabulary—and with it the awareness that most words carry several meanings. You need to look up even familiar words every time you have a doubt And especially when you don’t have a doubt.

Copy or print out a couple of pages by an author whose work you like. (For example, the opening of John McPhee’s Coming into the Country.) Gather some colored pens or pencils. Choose one color and circle all the nouns. Pause to consider them. Then choose a different color and circle all the verbs. Pause again. Ditto the articles, adverbs, adjectives, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections. Anything left over? There shouldn’t be. This will clarify the parts of speech, and it will help you see how the author uses them. If a word puzzles you, look it up.

Your job as a writer is making sentences. Your other jobs include fixing sentences, killing sentences, and arranging sentences.

The idea of writer’s block, in its ordinary sense, Exists largely because of the notion that writing should flow. But if you accept that writing is hard work, And that’s what it feels like while you’re writing, Then everything is just as it should be. Your labor isn’t a sign of defeat. It’s a sign of engagement.

There’s nothing natural about writing except the tendency to assume that it’s natural, Thanks to a false analogy with talking.

“Inspiration” is what gets you to the keyboard, And that’s where it leaves you.

Learn to write anywhere, at any time, in any conditions, With anything, starting from nowhere. All you really need is your head, the one indispensable requirement.

Where ambiguity rules, there is no “style”—or anything else worth having. Pursue clarity instead. In the pursuit of clarity, style reveals itself.

All writing is revision. That’s not what you learned in school. In school you learned to write a draft and then revise.

Try this instead: Revise at the point of composition. Compose at the point of revision. Accept no provisional sentences. Make no drafts And no draft sentences. Bring the sentence you’re working on as close to its final state as you can Before you write it down and after.

Revision is thinking applied to language, An opening and reopening of discovery, A search for the sentence that says the thing you had no idea you could say Hidden inside the sentence you’re making.

You’ll never know what you think until you escape your outline.

The sound of a writer’s fears is the sound of nothing— No typing, no clicking, no scratching of pens. But you can only run out of material If you haven’t been thinking or noticing.

Try this: No outline. Research, reading, noticing, interviewing, traveling, paying attention, note taking—all the work you do to understand the subject, whatever it is, whatever kind of piece you’re writing. Reread your notes, and take notes on them. And again. Take notes on your thoughts. Most of all, take notes on what interests you.

Learn to be patient in the presence of your thoughts. Learn to be equally patient in the presence of a new sentence or a phrase you like. Let yourself pause and work on that sentence. In your head. Don’t write it down. Be patient. Pay attention to everything you’re thinking.

Let the thoughts that interest you distract you. Ask yourself about them. Why do they interest you? What were you thinking about before they appeared?

Don’t try to distinguish between thinking and making sentences. Pretend they’re the same thing.

Get used to discarding sentences. You’re holding an audition. Many sentences will try out. One gets the part.

You want to begin the piece, not introduce it, which is the difference between a first sentence already moving at speed and a first sentence that wants to generalize while clearing its throat.

See if you can write the sentence that arises from the first sentence, Not the sentence that follows from it, Even if that means the second sentence lies at some distance from the first.

Don’t worry about trajectory or sequence. Don’t look further ahead than two or three sentences. And don’t plan those sentences. Write them in your head instead.

Imagine sentences instead of writing them. Keep them imaginary until you’re happy with them.

The fear of forgetting and the rush to be done are closely related.

You may find that the most important section of the piece—a section you haven’t written yet—emerges from the gap created when you break a long sentence in two.

“But” is always preferable to “however,” Except in the rare cases where “however” is preferable to “but,” Which has everything to do with rhythm, formality, and context.

Resist chronology. It will always try to impose itself. Break the flow of time once it begins. Better yet, resist it from the start.

Use the simple past tense— Avoiding the layering of several pasts— And give the reader clear temporal clues when needed.

One of the most powerful feelings a writer experiences while working Is a sense of obligation, of having to make a sentence or a paragraph This way or that way, being obliged to write that sentence or that paragraph.

Avoiding what you feel you must write is as much a part of writing As discovering what you didn’t know you could write.

Imagine a cellist playing one of Bach’s solo suites. Does he consider his audience? (Did Bach, for that matter?) Does he play the suite differently to audiences Of different incomes and educations and social backgrounds? No. The work selects its audience.

You’ll be tempted to ask, “Who is the reader?” The better question is always, “Who am I to the reader?”

Any sentence containing “it was noticed that” qualifies for instant demolition and reconstruction.

The writer needs to return to the fundamental question: What am I trying to say?

“Constituted” is the kind of verb—abstract, dull, essentially passive, academic—that should immediately send you hunting for a stronger, more active one.

“An appreciation of”? A noun phrase. No energy. Static. “To appreciate”? A verb. Better, but not perfect. Never substitute noun phrases for verbs.

Notice the awkwardness of the “from … to” structure, which implies a spectrum of possibilities. It’s nearly always awkward. Instead: they used every bit of the kill—meat, dung, hooves, bone marrow, and so on.

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