Essential writing skills: harsh sentences for authors

I posted the other week on the importance of getting the rhythm right when writing sentences. And on the incompetence of my high school English teacher, but that’s another matter.

Party time in Napier's main 'art deco' precinct, February 2014.

Rhythm’s important to writing – as important as music. Jazz, for instance (this being a jazz type picture).

Getting the rhythm right when you write is part of the essential framework of writing – it lends interest. You can draw the reader, sometimes, by rhythm alone. It applies, of course, to every part of writing – words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs and so on.

The other part of making sentences work is in the content, which is largely a matter of structure. In strict grammatical terms a sentence is a single idea, but it can often be broken up into clauses and sub-clauses.

In non-fiction, particularly – but also, sometimes, fiction – I often discover very long sentences, sometimes embodying more than one idea. They run on (this is a technical term). The reason is that the author hasn’t properly organised their thoughts. It gets egregious when the subject and predicative (‘what’ and ‘what happens’) parts are divided by long qualifying clauses. This can really obstruct meaning. ‘The queen, while sitting at dinner and feeling extremely hungry, but whose crown was extremely heavy and had fallen over her nose, told the king to pass the salt.’ Ouch.

The trick is to make sure the subject (what the sentence is about) and the predicative (what happens to the subject) are adjacent.  Sometimes a long sentence is better written as two or three short ones. In both fiction and non-fiction, it’s also useful to organise the ideas in each sentence – to get the order so the sentence leads the reader on a journey.

All this may sound like Writing 101, but it’s amazing how easily writers can get carried into their work. Familiarity breeds contempt – quickly. Yes, writers have to write for themselves first and foremost – but the reader has to be thought about too. One way to test that is to put the work in a metaphorical drawer for a couple of weeks and then re-read it. Does it hold your interest? If it doesn’t, then it probably won’t capture readers either.

The biggest challenge when writing – and one of the causes of long convoluted sentences – is the fact that we think in simultaneous concepts, but writing is linear – a single idea thread. The knack for writers when assembling sentences – and, for that matter, any writing – is to understand the issue and be able to disentangle that simultaneity.

It’s a question, in short, of understanding how people think.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

 

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4 comments on “Essential writing skills: harsh sentences for authors

  1. Cymbria Wood says:

    “The reason is that the author hasn’t properly organised their thoughts.” This is such a great sentence! (speaking of sentences lol) The way I see it, it all comes down to respecting ourselves and our readers.

    I felt the true responsibility of a writer for the first time as a teenager when writing letters to a relative who was in the last stages of cancer. These would be the last words I would share with this dear person, but more importantly, with such a short time left, each word represented a moment of her life. Suddenly, every sentence had to have meaning, every word had to GIVE something.

    Awwww man, I’m tearing up over here! Organizing our thoughts into clear, coherent sentences is certainly the least we can do – as a matter of respect. Because, in the end, none of us have time to waste running to catch up with run-ons! ps: Love how your metacognition is translating into such practical advice!!

    • That’s a tremendous responsibility to have when writing! Words crafted with love, specifically for someone, at their end of their life – and that runs to the very heart of what writing really is. It’s all about transferring emotion. Words are such imperfect vehicles for it, but they’re all we have for the job. Thank you for sharing your story!

      To me that’s where the metacognition comes in (good word that). If we can think laterally – think conceptually – then maybe we can find ways of turning words into better vehicles – shaping them so as to transcend the usual limits and convey those concepts and emotions in new ways. Hopefully. And to me, if we can understand how we think, then it’s a huge step towards understanding how all that works – the very foundation of how writing emerges.

  2. KM Huber says:

    Marvelous post, Matthew! One of the many reasons I enjoy reading your writing is its rhythm. I can always “hear” your writing. For me, that means what you are saying “sinks in” immediately. Frankly, it feels as if it happens, literally, if one can feel words sinking into one’s brain. Well, enough of that.

    Again, I appreciate that your sentences are illustrative of whatever writing point you are making. The rhythm in this post is perfect. Thanks, Matthew! And, yes, this post is also going into my writing file.
    Karen

    • Thank you! I’m glad what I’m doing is useful – and I very much appreciate your support. As I’ve mentioned, I’m quite seriously wondering about assembling a lot of this sort of material (and more) into a proper book. It’s a question of finding the time around everything else that’s happening.

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