2020/12/10

How to Write a Sentence

sentence

Working as a professional writer and editor these past years has not only taught me a lot about writing; it's shown me much that I didn't even suspect I didn't know. Since I always try to have one hand reaching down the ladder to help folks below me up while my other hand reaches for the next rung, I periodically like to share writing insights I've gained.

Most author blogs these days are laser-focused on the business end of writing, with a particular emphasis on marketing. While salesmanship is an indispensable skill for all authors, today's post will tackle a subject that's woefully neglected in my opinion: the nuts and bolts mechanics of prose writing--specifically writing at the sentence level.

Hang out your shingle as a freelance editor, and you'll soon find that today's aspiring authors are saddled with a load of bad writing habits picked up from 90 IQ public school English teachers, social media, and movies. I can always spot writers who are more influenced by film and video games than books. That few people read much fiction written before 1980 compounds the problem.

Print media are not visual media. There are all kinds of tricks movies can pull that don't work in books. Then again, novels can get away with stuff that makes screenwriters jealous. To succeed as a professional, you have to know your medium. I'm here to help new writers increase their understanding. Because people who shun proscriptive teaching are bleeding heart hippies, Here are some common sentence-level vices to root out.

Pairing an -ing verb clause with a non-simultaneous action

Pulling the door open, Dave walked in.

Arranging the sentence this way indicates that the action on both sides of the comma is happening at the same time. In this case, Dave is either walking into the partially open door or somehow phasing through it-which would require prior setup.

To clearly describe a character opening a door and walking through it, write, Dave opened the door and walked in.


Compound sentence follies

A lot of writers these days have trouble with compound sentences. I'm not sure why. The rule is pretty straightforward: A compound sentence consists of two or more independent clauses--clauses that could stand alone as sentences--joined by conjunctions preceded by commas.

Here are some examples of what not to do:

Rupert set the gun on the table, and picked up the salami. "Picked up the salami" is not an independent clause. Thus the example is not a compound sentence, and a comma should not precede "and".

Eugene grabbed Rupert's gun but the mag was empty. Those are both independent clauses, so a comma should precede "but".

"It's raining cats and dogs," Olivia said and opened her umbrella. This is an especially grievous violation I've seen cropping up a lot lately. There's so much wrong with the above example, I don't know where to start. "And opened her umbrella" is not an independent clause, so this isn't a compound sentence. But the whole construction is such a mess, that's the least of our worries.

To see why this example is an abomination, take off the dialogue. We're left with, "Olivia said and opened her umbrella." Is she saying "her umbrella" while opening an umbrella? That's what the sentence indicates, even though the idea it's trying to convey is that Olivia is saying, "It's raining cats and dogs." Then she's opening her umbrella.

What we have here is an unnecessarily messy attempt to form a pseudo-compound sentence from a dialogue tag and a dependent clause. In the first place, dialogue tags should be invisible, and constructions like this draw undue attention to them. Moreover, there are much more elegant ways to handle such situations.

The right answer: "It's raining Cats and dogs." Olivia opened her umbrella.

Readers will naturally attribute dialogue directly preceding or following action to the acting character, so we can ditch the dialogue tag. Also, two short sentences flow better than one long sentence stitched together with conjunctions and/or punctuation.


Frag grenades

Likely due to misguided attempts to ape movies combined with common misconceptions about prose pacing, some writers massively overuse sentence fragments.

Plunging through the icy surface. Struggled in the black depths. Lungs burning. Air!

Some folks seem to think that staccato, fragmentary writing makes for taut pacing. It doesn't. Instead. It's choppy. And distracting. For. Readers.

The occasional sentence fragment is okay for economy's sake. Peppering your prose with sentence fragments means you're trying to be clever, which usually comes at the expense of clarity. If you take nothing else away from this post, remember this: When it comes to writing prose, be clear, not clever!


Head spinning

Shiro looked up at the smoke-blackened ceiling. A shout drew his eye to Fred, who stood wreathed in flames. Glancing all around, Shiro locked eyes on a fire extinguisher.

The whole point of writing in first person or third person close perspective--which all of you should be doing--is to firmly establish a single character through whose point of view we experience the story. If you do it right and clearly identify the POV character in each scene, there is no need to state that he's looking at something. You're making extra work for yourself by not simply describing what he sees. This is the real value of show, don't tell.

Now let's fix it.

Shiro stumbled through the black smoke rising to the chapel ceiling. Fred screamed in the aisle, his body wreathed in flames. A fire extinguisher hung on the vestibule wall. Shiro dashed for it.

Note how cutting out all that stage direction made room for lots more setting detail and action.

Now you're all out of excuses. For each of these errors I find in a manuscript one of you submits, I shall impose a penance of seven slaps on the wrist with a rolled-up copy of Strunk & White.

But don't take my word for it, read the results for yourself!

13 comments:

  1. Your rewrite in the last example also helps close the emotional distance between Shiro and the reader. That closeness draws the reader in better.

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  2. Brian

    This a great post. I concour read more book,the older the better.
    As for Strunk and White, I'm not a fan of their recommendations. My beef with them as well as with Orwell and Churchil is the obsession to use Anglo-Saxon words in very short sentences in place of Latin ones. In hands of masters such prose is awesome but most fail and it grates. It comes across as really flat and uninspiring. Like they're scared to use Latinate words because it's too woke or something.
    I guess this attitude stems from my Latin roots which loves to push language into lyrics, yeah it can be excessively baroque and nauseatingly florid but there's a joy in reading or listening to such prose.

    xavier

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  3. But...but...smarties like this guy disagrees with you:
    "Drawing on his own teaching and classroom inquiry, Asao Inoue offers a heuristic for developing and critiquing writing assessment ecologies that explores seven elements of any writing assessment ecology: power, parts, purposes, people, processes, products, and places. Inoue is Director of University Writing and Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences..."
    Professor Inoue is noted for standing up for grammar as racist and patriarchal construction which ought to be swept away in service of the revolution.
    All you criticisms above, he would claim, are merely your privilege speaking, and would not apply to BIPOC or LGBTBBQWTF writers.

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    1. These are the sorts of people who have no clue what Conservative culture is and have no idea why newpub has a majority market share.

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  4. I don't want to give away too much personal information here, but I can say I sympathize and I'm doing what I can to remedy this mess. Although I've come to question a lot of what he says, I think Jordan Peterson had a point when he said that there's no difference between thinking clearly and writing clearly, and someone who cannot do the second probably can't do the first either. Unfortunately, we appear to be in a society where few (even few of our "elites") appear to be capable of genuine thought.

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    1. Much of writing and editing is attempting to get your thoughts from the brain to the page cleared up. It's learning the right order to put thoughts down in.

      That's something you can only do with a lot of practice and with good editors who will help push you the rest of the way.

      That's why everyone, including myself in the Pulp Mindset, says that one of the non-negotiables of writing is getting a professional editor.

      You need to make sure what you're trying to say is clear enough that the audience knows what you mean.

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    2. I've thought about getting into writing as a side hustle. In my day job I've done a decade or so of technical writing. In my experience JD is 100% on target. I've always been a competent writer, but one supervisor in particular made such a huge impact in my clarity of thought and expression in my work product that it became impossible to deny the massive style and competency impact from an excellent editor.

      It's hard to impossible to get outside of one's head to see what other people see. And we can all identify the point in certain authors' output where their editors stopped bothering giving them editorial input (or they became powerful enough to not have to respond to it).

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  5. When or in what perspective would you use language stating what the POV character is turning attention to or focusing on then? Pardon the ignorance, but I have a feel that it must come up, but I could not probably figure out when or why.

    Thank you for the article also. Plenty of advice to carry forward.

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    Replies
    1. You are welcome. Thanks for reading. What was the question, again?

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    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    3. Concerning the head spinning section is what this relates. No promises I'll be any clearer though.

      My intuition concerning writing thinks that there is a time when having firmly established the POV character, to describe that POV shifting to take in a particular detail. EG,"He stepped up onto the sill, and looked down." something like that.

      I feel like there is a time and place where it's not bad form to write about what the established POV character is looking at/taking in. Though sparingly used of course. Does that intuition sound correct?

      Thanks for taking the time.

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    4. Yeah, unobtrusive bits of stage direction like that, used only when necessary, can be fine.

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