Welcome to the second post in a series exploring some of the mechanics of writing.
Deco. Jazz. Hemingway, They all go together.
Writing is one of those fields where everybody thinks they can do it –not because it’s easy, but because they don’t know enough about it to know how hard it actually is.
The challenge is making the transition from those stumbling moments through to soaring mastery of the art. I outlined some of those challenges last week – check out the break-down.
This week – the No. 1 basic issue – sentence construction. With a twist. One that will, I guarantee, throw Word green grammar error underlines through your work – but it’ll be quite comprehensible to the punters. And it’s essential.
It’s the twist that makes people want to read it, you see.
Sentence construction is something hammered into most of us at high school, with the exception of me – my English teacher told my parents that no matter what I did, I would fail at it. Especially anything to do with English.
He never twigged that the actual problem was that he was boring and I usually switched off listening about 10 milliseconds into his classes.
When it comes to sentences you know the drill: the tenses have to match, the plurals have to match, and a sentence must have a subject and a predicate, usually in that order. For example, ‘I am laughing all the way to the bank’. The subject is ‘I’, everything else is the predicate, or the ‘doing part’ of the sentence.
Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
It also has to be a particular length, though exactly how long is a matter of opinion. When I was at school, that English teacher ruled that no sentence could be more than 2.5 lines, for instance. An institutional silliness which masked the point that, by classical rules, a sentence can often be quite long. It’s meant to encompass a single idea, but that idea may be quite complex – hence we have a plethora of different devices to separate the clauses: colons; semicolons, commas, and Oxford Commas among them. (Did you see what I did in that last sentence, anyone…anyone?)
The problem is that a sentence written strictly by the rules is a writing equivalent of one of those Czerny music exercises. Strictly correct, but absolutely boring. That’s where the twist comes in. Writing that runs to relentless rhythm lulls the reader into thinking they’re back in one of those stupidly dull English lessons I had to endure at high school.
Follow the rules, sure – readers will likely have trouble parsing meanings otherwise. But be creative about it. And the creative part – from the point of view of mechanical construction – is to give the sentence an interesting rhythm. My how-to tips for that are:
1. Vary your sentence length. Hemingway was supposed to have written only with short sentences. Wrong. He also wrote very, very long ones – inevitably with purpose.
2. Don’t just vary your sentence length. Also vary the length of the clauses and components within it.
3. Also vary word length, by syllables ideally.
4. Don’t ever go to the high school I went to.
Try it. Read some sentences aloud. Try again – keep doing that, and you’ll see what I mean.
Of course, that’s not the only way to make sentences interesting. They also have to have the correct content. More on that next week.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014