Friday, August 17, 2012

Your Job As a Writer Is Making Sentences

If you are on twitter and you don't follow Maria Popova, shame on you. Her feed, brain picker, is rife with essential information. Check her out.

Recently she posted a piece about a book called Several Short Sentences About Writing, by controversial New York Times editorial board member Verlyn Klinkenborg.

His premise is if you master writing good, concise sentences, you can write anything in any genre.

"Writing short sentences restores clarity."

As a writing teacher, I preach clarity as the number one goal in writing, so I am with him on that piece of advice.

"Know what each sentence says, what it doesn't say, and what it implies."

In this vein, using the precise word is crucial. The car moved down the street has an abstract implication. The clunker rattled down the street has a more specific image, and it implies the driver  might also have money problems.

There are innumerable ways to write badly,"  All I have to do is look through drafts of my own writing to confirm this.

"What you don't know about writing is also a form of knowledge, though much harder to grasp." This seems counterintuitive. But good writing is exploring what we don't know and applying what we do know. To write well you need to widen the lens beyond your familiar world. Explore unknown worlds. Take risks. I often give an assignment  where students are required to go outside their comfort zones. If you are afraid of heights, go ballooning, or if you hate crowds, go to Walmart on the first of the month. Observe, take notes. You will be a better and a more interesting person.

"The only link between you and the reader is the sentence you're making,"
 related to, " knowing what you've actually said is crucial."

Like Orwell ,Klinkenborg advises us to break the rules for the sake of the sentence, for rhythm . He also makes a case for there being no correlation between sentence length and intelligence on the part of the writer. An astute sentence can be written using simple diction.

Writing short sentences will help you write strong balanced sentences of any length." He asks the reader to recall early kid books where the language is compact, but not necessarily choppy. But the syntax was clear. Writing for children is deceptive; It's harder than you think because your audience is more discriminating. Younfg readers demand a rhythmic sound pattern to text.

"Read like a writer." Writers pay attention to the words, and the syntax. Writers also question the text, respond to it, (as I am doing now by HIS work).
 Read like a writer you can write in any form

My friends who teach Lit wil not agree, but Klinkenborg argues against trying to find meaning in sentences.Not to over analyze and intellectualize.

Know how to detect what interest you.
Second to clarity, another essential key to good wri9ting is passion. If you have no passion for your subject, be it poetry or prose, your writing will be beige.

We can all witness the same scene, but  each of us pulls out the details that interest us. For example, I am drawn to faces. If I were to witness a bank robbery, and the suspect is not wearing a mask, I would pay attention to the perps features, hair color, and expressions.  A fashionista might describe what he or she is wearing. A musician will pick up the tone and notes of the robbers voice, a podiatrist will notice how he walks, and a tattooist can describe the  body art.

Good Writing is layering good sentences or lines of poetry on top of one another. Consciously.

Essentially Klinkenborg is saying as writers we should suffer over the words.

I dont agree with everything Klinkenborg says in this book. He gets fuzzy when he reflects about You can start anywhere and there is no order, and The obsession with transition negates a basic truth about writing: you can get anywhere from anywhere. Only experienced writers can get by with taking weird tangents off the paths through a story or essay. I believe in transitions. Developing writers like high school and undergraduates still need a framework.

The book uses a meditative, mantra-like repetition that I find annoying, as if he has to remind me what I have already read. Makes me feel brainwashed.

Overall the book offers good advice, albeit in a repetitious, hypnotic, non- linear structure. He wisely advises possessing good grammar

 I agree that "good writing is significant everhwere,"

“Writing doesn’t prove anything, and it only rarely persuades. It does something much better. It attests. It witnesses. It shares your interest in what you’ve noticed.”

And speaking of sentences, check out these gems:

Try to write a worse sentence than one of these. Intentional bad wiring can be just as difficult as good wrong, but it's so much fun.

Here is an example I wrote waiting for the doctor in a cold exam room.

It was so cold, icicles formed on my fingernails, resembling glass shards from a windshield after a highway crash in the rain on a cloudy Friday afternoon during a thunderstorm following an endless heat wave of ninety plus degree temperatures where we all felt like melted cheese over fries.


Happy Writing.


  1. I'm trying to scrape that sentence you wrote off of my brain, Laura. It's not working...

  2. Tee here. Maybe I will use it an opening sentence for my next novel. Think I will hook any readers?