Sentence structures

Like all new writers, I sought out advice and listened to every helpful tip about how to make my sentences clear, my writing more better.

And there is no shortage of advice out there. Rules to follow, rules to break, style guides and grammar guides. Be like Hemmingway they say, and omit needless words (editing drunk is terrible btw); Faulkner is too wordy, and forget about Joyce as anyone who says they finished Ulysses is lying.

And so I chopped away until the pieces of prose were laid bare, and then restrung them (without semicolons for they are the Devil winking at you) and assumed my writing was getting gooder.

Then an interesting moment occurred. It was late 2016 and I was coming to the end of a year 9 English unit on short story writing. My students had all completed drafts, and I was talking them through the arduous process of darling-killing when the inevitable question came: 'Show us your work,' said one, and the others quickly joined the chorus, no doubt hoping at least to sidetrack their teacher and do away with any further work for the lesson. Normally I shy away from any talk of my own writing inside of school (unless I'm farming for beta feedback of a finished novel) but this day I had an example pertinent to the class: a short story that was in a third draft and nearing (or so I thought at the time) a finished state.

So I brought up the opening paragraph of both the almost-done story, as well as the hastily composed first draft and started to take them through the editing decisions I'd made; the words I'd cut, the sentences I'd shortened, the ideas I'd refined. Most agreed that the story was better, clearer now that all those needless words were gone. And then the same student who had first asked to see my work held up his hand again and hit me with one of those disarming insights that keep teachers up at night.

'I liked the first draft better.'

Um.. Dead air. I laughed and showed him systematically why he was wrong, that all the cutting and simplifying was the right way to write, that he, a stupid ignorant child knew nothing, that there was no possible way that the work I'd done could, in fact, have made my story worse.

But later that night, I saw the truth.

There is often something in that first rush of words that is more real, more vital and more delicate than any of the re-working can accomplish, and it can be killed as easily by editing as the solemn silence of a funeral can by a fart.

So I went back to the drawing board. First draft--what had I done? Where had I gone wrong?

It was my sentences, of course. They are, in the end, all we have. Words are too small and concrete to find abstract meaning in (like trying to understand a chair by looking at molecules of wood) and things as big as an entire story is the opposite: too abstract to control or understand (like trying to understand a chair by watching a dinner party) It is in sentences where meaning is made, one idea at a time, one metaphor after another, linking, comparing, telling the moments of the story in a way that is clear and yet evocative, comprehensible, yet challenging.

And here I was killing the best of mine, chopping off their heads (or tails), erasing all colons (semi and regular) and all so that I could achieve an average of 14 words between capital letter and full stop as if shorter was better, as if no reader would follow me into the territory of a 50 word sentence (this one has 59)

I needed better advice. I needed help.

Luckily I had my monthly audible credit waiting and a new suggestion on my recommendation list:

It is part of a series called The Great Courses, a few of which I'd listened to and enjoyed. This one sounded perfect, and now, three months later, I have listened to the whole thing twice and it has completely changed the way I draft my work.

I cannot recommend this one enough to anyone who wants to take writing seriously. Over the course of 24 lectures Professor Brooks Landon talks about how we need to make sentences longer, not shorter, fill them with more information not less in our effort to make them better.

And that story I showed my class? It was called Desire by Design and I brought the original opening sentence back from the dead as well as changed the title to BetaU and just signed the contract to have it published in July.



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