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Thursday, June 30, 2011

voice, compose in an authentic



in writing, some of the most obvious and helpful tips can also be some of the most under-appreciated. take, for example, the suggestion for writers to compose in an authentic voice, to let their human feel for language shine through. yet how often do we abandon our own easy gift for words when circumstances require us to write? how often do we let our syntax suddenly stiffen, calcifying into rigid and unnatural blocks of text? why does this happen?

i'm not sure. and i'm not sure i care enough to truly probe the question. what does interest me, though, are the ways we can write with a natural cadence, an organic gait that feels (in the positive sense) conversational.

a helpful way i've found to give my prose the color of conversation is to remember that all writing operates at the level of dialogue--and that's true whether i'm engaging an audience that's public or private, large or small, or (as is so often the case) limited solely to myself.

when i write from this place--from the persona of both Speaker and Listener--i'm reminded to establish exigence--an invaluable rhetorical tool that often gives writing that loose but logical voice. exigence (despite the forbidding name) simply means the "circumstances that necessitate communication"; or, put another way, exigence asks us to invoke the "timing" of our work, the circumstances that make "now" the right moment to hold forth.

writing is meant to be read, which means it's also destined to be performed (in whatever fashion that may take). as result, we should all want our work to feel as readable and honest and syntactically effective as possible. and, as i've hoped to make clear, establishing the exigency for a given article or essay or blog post (or really almost anything?) can help us remember that, while yes we are writing, we are also (in a very real way) speaking--and therefore word choice and sentence patterns must hit the natural beats and bounces of speech.

here are two strong examples of what i mean.

the first is from Scott Simon, host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday. (note: Marvin Gay's "What's Going On?" plays softly in the background during the feature.)

SIMON: Music is a way many of us mark time in our lives or even of history.


(soundbite of song)


SIMON: Forty years ago today, Marvin Gaye's album "What's Going On?" was released. It was sweet, sad and had bite. Without being explicit or obvious, it seemed to sing at the era of marching in the streets and mourning for those who died, both overseas and in the struggle for civil rights at home. The song seemed to catch the wave of history, became a huge hit.


for me, this is perfect. the intro engages the audience in a conversation--and does so by both its exigency ("Forty years ago today...") and its mix of elevated and colloquial expressions.

the second example is from a New York Times Magazine article that i think is destined for many journalists' end-of-year top ten lists. notice how the article's exigency--Derek Jeter's 37th birthday--informs the author's tone and style.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

rules, breaking the



on one level, i always feel a bit self-conscious (okay, embarrassed) when i draw attention to how professional writers use punctuation; i mean, a close reading of punctuation--what could be more dreary? but i also see punctuation as an intrinsic part of our language, not simply something we "do" to our words. punctuation is not something we invented after the creation of written language; rather, it is something innate to language itself, to discourse patterns, to verbal expression. if that sounds crazy, consider how naturally and even unconsciously we inflect our words when speaking (a stress here, a pause for effect there). inflection in speech, then, is punctuation in print.

here's good example of how professional writers use punctuation to expertly inflect their words. the sentences below are excerpted from a Stephen M. North book review.

"I floundered around a long time seeking just the right way to introduce this review of Louise Wetherbee Phelps’ Composition as a Human Science. The truth is, I really like this book, with emphasis on that present tense; I find myself rereading it, pondering it, defending it, attacking it, recommending it to my students."

North places a comma after the word "is" (something our teachers told us never, ever to do) because he wants to create suspense for whatever his truth-claim will be. perhaps a lesser writer might have chosen the more traditional, blind-obedience-to-the-rules approach, and written:

"The truth is that I really like this book, with emphasis on that present tense;"

in the reworked version, the suspense (the pause) is lost; the reader is halfway through the sentence before he or she realizes its point. North solves this problem by substituting a comma for the word "that." (which is an important point, since it highlights my broader thesis that punctuation and words are not discrete entities, even though we may speak of them as such.)

next, lets very briefly examine why North places a comma after the word "book."

"The truth is, I really like this book, with emphasis on that present tense;"

we've, rightly so, learned not to attach a comma to a dependent clause (bolded below) when it follows an independent clause (e.g., "my dog wags his tail when he's happy," and not "my dog wags his tail, when he's happy.") so why does North break this rule? because he knows that the only rule to follow in writing is the one that helps achieve clarity of expression. or, put another way, if grammar or punctuation rules hinder clarity, ignore them. we don't write to appease robots; we write to express and connect and explain and emote. and we want to do so with as much clarity as we can.

and that's why North places a comma where normally he wouldn't. he wants to make sure the reader understands that the word "with" refers to his "liking." (otherwise, without the comma, readers might unwittingly read "this book with emphasis..." as possessing the same semantic relationship as, say, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (emphases mine).

moving on. read the sentence again, and ask yourself, why does North break the common-sense rule of placing a coordinating conjunction ("and," "or") just before the final item in a list of three or more items.

"The truth is, I really like this book, with emphasis on that present tense; I find myself rereading it, pondering it, defending it, attacking it, recommending it to my students."

North is signalling that his list is non-exhaustive. in other words, when you omit the final "and," you are telling the reader that your list includes only the most salient items. (example: "my grandmother was always baking something sweet--muffins, pastries, cakes." omitting the final "and" lets the reader know that the grandmother baked many more sweets than the three listed.)*

one final point.

North puts Composition as a Human Science in italics. as a writing teacher, i am frequently asked whether book titles get underlined, italicized, or put in quotes? the short answer: book titles should be italicized. that's the conventional standard. end of story. the long answer is that, well, it depends. when writing by hand, for example, we underline book titles, since we can't--at least not systematically--italicize our handwriting. also, a few publications (The New Yorker magazine, comes to mind) put book titles in quotes. it doesn't really matter which method you adopt--italics, underline, or quotation marks. what matters is that you understand why we inflect book titles (or any titles, for that matter) in the first place: clarity.

hope all that helps.

* "asyndeton" is the technical term for this.

Friday, June 24, 2011

comma chameleon



my relationship with punctuation has progressed through at least three separate stages.

the first--the "Golden Ticket" stage--began when my third-grade teacher, ms. shannon, told me to forget about the rules and just place commas wherever i naturally paused when reading. her advice didn't seem possible and, in some sort of weird act of misplaced rebellion, i put her advice to the test. i grabbed my textbook and felt sure i could breeze across sentences, riding the zephyr of my own reading rhythms, unconcerned by the commas that tried to jump in my way. try as i might, though, my breath would regroup for that split second whenever i reached a comma. it was almost supernatural--as if the author knew precisely where i would need a quick sip of air, and thus sprinkled specks of punctuation to show me it was okay. god, how i remember feeling like i was witnessing a kind of magic, and how quickly i felt myself falling in love with this idea--the freedom to punctuate not by a set of obscure and clumsy edicts, but by the most instinctual part of ourselves: the breath.

stage two--which we'll call "Drill and Kill"--began in grad school when i started teaching freshman composition classes. early in that first semester, i had happily shared ms. shannon's punctuation tip with the students. i remember deciding how grateful the students would be to receive such an intuitive and "cool" non-rule rule. the first batch of essays they turned in, however, were littered with commas in all the wrong spots, strewn in places that suggested speed, and absent in nooks that begged for breaks. (the essays were also plagued by a number of larger and more important issues--most of which we addressed as the semester rolled along. some we didn't.)

i felt capable, perhaps even uniquely qualified, to help my students compose with a greater sense of thematic coherence and purpose. but what i didn't possess was an empirical and scientific answer for the students who, say, asked why the sentence "since he was so hungry, jerry felt like ordering two of everything on the menu" needs a comma, but "jerry felt like ordering two of everything on the menu since he was so hungry" does not. or why "my sister studied in paris, france, while in college" necessitates a comma after the word france.

luckily (if that's the right word), an intro to college grammar class was being held just down the hall from where i taught. and so the next morning, i spoke with the professor and she graciously allowed me to audit her class. thus began my systematic plunge into the science behind comma usage in specific, punctuation in particular, and grammar in general.

the third stage--and the era in which i currently reside--goes by a rather banal-sounding name: the "Signal" stage. simply stated, commas (and this goes for all other punctuation, too) are signals. as writers, we use them when mere words alone can't (or shouldn't) do the job. but you already knew that. perhaps, though, what you've haven't fully appreciated is that punctuation--when considered as a system of signals--means we are given a sort of second Golden Ticket. and this ticket is good for something much more creative and, ultimately, life-affirming than the original. what i am talking about here is punctuation in service of personal taste. when i sit down to write, i let personal taste dictate where my thoughts do and don't benefit from "signals." i use punctuation to help my words achieve (hopefully) the highest level of flow, clarity, precision, (insert other effect i may be working toward at any given moment). and there is no rulebook--which i know of, anyway--that has already divined the punctuation needs of sentences i have yet to write.

and that's the very advice i'd give to anyone who writes, wants to write, or even hates to write. punctuation, if you so desire, can come with a user's manual (a very, very helpful user's manual); but punctuation can also bend to personal taste--as long as you are crystal clear about what you mean by personal taste. for me, as i've said, i seek a kind of conversational ease, but with all the coherence and lucidity i can possibly muster. i want my writing to achieve what the thoughts swirling in my mind lack--namely, organization and concision and (dare to dream) elegance. and so when i've sketched my sentence as far as i can without punctuation and something still feels maddeningly "off," that's when i use punctuation to turn "on" what mere words cannot.

of course, the broader and more meaningful point i want to make here has very little to do with punctuation--either rule-based or otherwise. the deeper point is that personal taste isn't everything in writing, nor is it the only thing. but it's damn close. the only way a writer will ever get his or her sentences to flow forward--to gently role down the slope of smooth syntax--is through harnessing the power of personal taste. which, yes, is easier said than done, because personal taste often involves catering to (or at least being aware of) the preferences of the audience, the reader, the public. yet, the truth remains: we must develop the ability to look at our sentences and ask whether or not we've expressed ourselves in the best way. and then we must gather the courage to shape and reshape our thoughts into their highest form. and that requires a deep confidence--not in the rules--but our rules.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

symmetry, structuring the pattern of your words to create balance and


artist: metamorfize

so today i came across the below paragraph, and i think it offers us a really easy chance to brush-up on the idea of parallelism: a term that (in grammar circles) means structuring the pattern of your words to create balance and symmetry.

here's the paragraph (note the words i've bolded).

"The book is modernity’s quintessential technology—“a means of transportation through the space of experience, at the speed of a turning page,” as the poet Joseph Brodsky put it. But now that the rustle of the book’s turning page competes with the flicker of the screen’s twitching pixel, we must consider the possibility that the book may not be around much longer. If itisn ’t—if we choose to replace the book—what will become of reading and the print culture it fostered? And what does it tell us about ourselves that we may soon retire this most remarkable, five-hundred-year-old technology?"

at its most basic, parallelism uses the same word structure to create balance--example: "i like hiking, jogging, and kayaking." okay, that sentence works. but now imagine I wrote, "i like hiking, jogging, and to kayak." um, yeah, not so much.

easy stuff. so let's move toward the more advanced level, which goes something like this: if you pay attention to professional writers, you'll see them employ parallelism to preserve the flow and clarity of their more intricate and involved sentences. in the words, the longer and more intricate a sentence becomes, the more it craves a balanced pattern--because it's that balance, after all, which keeps the sentence smooth and rhythmic.

look again at the sentence.

"But now that the rustle of the book’s turning page competes with the flicker of the screen’s twitching pixel, we must [...]."

"the-rustle-of-the-book's-turning-page"

which grammatically translate* as "article-noun-preposition-article-noun-adjective-noun."

and the words "the flicker of the screen's twitching pixel" are an exact grammatical match: "article-noun-preposition-article-noun=adjective-noun."

that's how it's done.

now as some sort of pedantic refresher course on parallelism, this post means absolutely nothing. which is fine, because i'm only really really this point: just as math freaks can "see" The Math, visually watching numbers zip and zoom into their most natural answer, the same is true for professional writers. they can see the syntax often before they even see the words.

for us mere mortals, however, we've only briefly tasted such a gift. but taste it we have. i'd bet that anyone reading this blog has, at some point, seen the syntax line itself up, and just slid the words into their most natural slots.

ah, to live!

and what we'd pay for another chance.

which is part of the reason we read, read, read. and while we do, noting parallelism as we go. lingering over its particular math. before dipping back into the text--knowing that our reading is slowly revolutionizing our writing.

__

*i'm blindly guessing as to the proper way to grammatically parse those words. i doubt i got exactly it right. but i got it right enough to preserve my point.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

caption, disjunctive


The uninhabited island was named for a marooned eighteenth-century adventurer who likely inspired the first English novel. I thought I’d strand myself there and read it. --Jonathan Franzen, "Farther Away."
---------
so Franzen's darkly amusing caption offers students of craft a valuable lesson--which is, writing that's directed toward the public, that seeks an audience, should feel conversational. that doesn't mean, though, the word choice must be informal. not at all. it's a common misconception that "conversational" and "informal" mean one in the same. they don't.

a conversation can and often does include many different ways of speaking, of using language--from the common and colloquial to the highly polished and performative. simply stated, the term "conversational" describes language that feels as though it is or could be spoken. (thus, we consider the style of, say, Jared Diamond--author of non-fiction bestsellers Guns, Germs, and Steel; and Collapse, et al.--to be "conversational," since he writes as though he's lecturing to an eager class of students, almost pausing here and there in the text to take up questions from the many raised hands. Diamond remains conversational throughout his books, but never informal.)

now all professional writers, not just Diamond, know they are engaging in a conversation whenever they write something they wish to see published, which is why they infuse their prose (to the desired level) with rhetorical cues that acknowledge someone else has a rightful seat at the table: and that person, of course, is the reader. bottom line: if you want your writing to sing, to move with a kind of dynamism, you must ask yourself two things:
1. what question (either implicitly or explicitly) am i answering in my work?*
2. can my writing be read aloud? (which is another way of asking, is it conversational?)



and Franzen, for all his erudition, never elevates his prose past the point where it no longer sings when spoken. (a few years after reading The Corrections, i bought a used copy on cassette. i must have listened to the book at least twice. if anything, Franzen's style works even better when spoken.) but what does any of this have to do with the caption for "Farther Away"?

well, look at the particular way in which the caption plays to the notion that all writing is form of conversation and thus needs to engage the audience in a type of back-and-forth, question-and-answer.

The uninhabited island was named for a marooned eighteenth-century adventurer who likely inspired the first English novel. I thought I’d strand myself there and read it.

Franzen is smashing two disparate ideas together: a decidedly inhospitable place, and his choice to take residence there. this disjunction opens a crater-sized lacuna in our minds, a gap caused by what we'd assumed given the content of the first sentence and what was actually revealed in the second. the only way to resolve this cognitive dissonance, then, is to ask, why would anyone willfully strand him or herself on an uninhabited island?

and thus we waltz, as if on cue, right into Franzen's essay, which is nothing if not the answer (the bridge, the missing information) to the question the disjunctive caption sets up.

the real value in looking so closely at Franzen's technique, we know, is that one way to improve our own work is to study (not the thematic meaning of literature but) the parts that go into its production. as an exercise, then, i thought it might be useful to come up with our own disjunctive captions. remember, though, the test of its success (using Franzen's as the gold standard) hinges on whether or not your caption seems to play on opposites, on reversal.

here is my attempt:

Jens Lekman, a thirty-year-old singer-songwriter from Gothenburg, Sweden, is largely unknown outside certain indie pop circles. his music will change your life.

(my hope is that readers will then read the article to discover why such extreme disunity exists between Lekman's talent and his name-recognition.)

add your attempt at a disjunctive caption in the comment section.
----
* in a future post, i will offer a detailed guide on the way professional writers establish a conversational tone by framing their work as a response to an either implicit or explicit question.

franzen, some notes on the first paragraph of a 12,000-word essay written by jonathan



the idea behind these posts is to help you "read like a writer"--that is, to help you examine a professional work of prose and identify not just what the text is doing, but also how it is doing it. the value in such an endeavour, i believe, is that we can radically improve our own writing through understanding the choices an author makes at both the micro (word choice) and macro (thematic organization) level.

consider the opening paragraph from "Farther Away," Jonathan Franzen 's 12,000-word essay in a recent issue of The New Yorker.

"In the South Pacific Ocean, five hundred miles off the coast of central Chile, is a forbiddingly vertical volcanic island, seven miles long and four miles wide, that is populated by millions of seabirds and thousands of fur seals but is devoid of people, except in the warmer months, when a handful of fishermen come out to catch lobsters. To reach the island, which is officially called Alejandro Selkirk, you fly from Santiago in an eight-seater that makes twice-weekly flights to an island a hundred miles to the east. Then you have to travel in a small open boat from the airstrip to the archipelago’s only village, wait around for a ride on one of the launches that occasionally make the twelve-hour outward voyage, and then, often, wait further, sometimes for days, for weather conducive to landing on the rocky shore. In the nineteen-sixties, Chilean tourism officials renamed the island for Alexander Selkirk, the Scottish adventurer whose tale of solitary living in the archipelago was probably the basis for Daniel Defoe’s novel "Robinson Crusoe," but the locals still use its original name, Masafuera: Farther Away."

What does the first sentence achieve? bracketing aside its style and skill, the first sentence establishes "the what" and "the where" (the "setting," if you like). yet we can also tell that the writer wants to personify this place as a kind of "who," that the island will function as a sort of character in the essay--otherwise why go to such pains to describe the place in such style-rich prose ("forbiddingly vertical volcanic island")?

note also the way in which Franzen sequences the island's animal life population: "millions of seabirds," "thousands of fur seals," "handful of fisherman." Franzen organizes from greatest to least (and not vice versa) because he wants the syntax to both structurally and semantically create a sense of isolation and rapid disappearance (a motif that runs throughout the essay).

the paragraph then makes a subtle turn toward gallows humor as Franzen explains the antiquated system of air travel involved in just starting to head in the island's vicinity. and things only become more and more rustic, because once deplaned,

"you have to travel in a small open boat from the airstrip to the archipelago’s only village, wait around for a ride on one of the launches that occasionally make the twelve-hour outward voyage, and then, often, wait further, sometimes for days, for weather conducive to landing on the rocky shore."

i'm not sure i'll ever come across another sentence so ready-made for this point: wordiness is not a function of how many words are in a sentence, but rather a value judgment regarding word economy and precision. in other words, a lengthy sentence is not automatically a wordy sentence. or, in opposite terms, even short sentence can still be quite wordy. if you go back and reread Franzen's sentence, which clocks in at 52 words (conventional wisdom suggests an average sentence should contain roughly 15-20 words), you'll notice how sturdy, how taut, how forward-flowing (and thus, how "clear") it nevertheless remains. the sentence--despite its length--never sags nor seems inefficient. and isn't inefficiency, after all, what we mean by wordiness? isn't wordiness when the purpose and content of a sentence seem somehow inefficiently paired, when the idea of the sentence wilted (rather than bloomed) under the weight of the writer's word choice?

a more interesting idea than wordiness, however, is at play in this same sentence--viz., the matching of form to purpose. it's an idea originally introduced to me by no less than Hamlet when he gives acting advice to one of his players. he implores the actor to "suit the action to the word, [and the] the word to the action." and that tip applies equally well in writing since, after all, what is writing other than a play that the reader silently performs in his or her head. which is why Franzen keeps extending and extending that particular sentence: he's suiting the action of traveling to the island (protracted, lengthy, seemingly endless) to the word count (also lengthy and seemingly endless) needed to recount the journey. simply put, the reader gets to feel how long it takes to travel to that island by getting to feel how long it takes to travel to the end of that sentence.

but, again, for all its length, it's not a wordy sentence, as evidenced clearly in Franzen's expert use of the "conducive." Franzen writes "[you often have to wait] for weather CONDUCIVE to landing on the rocky shore." (emphasis mine.) now suppose the word "conducive" did not exist. how would we still convey the same meaning? most likely, we would write something like "[you often have to wait] for weather THAT IS FAVORABLE to landing on the rocky shore." or maybe "THAT IS HELPFUL FOR SAFELY LANDING on the rocky shore." sure, both of my attempts kind of work, but they seem poor substitutes. the point is, conducive is the right word because it's the most economical.

Franzen, for all his style and structure, is not perfect here. indeed, i believe the writer makes a mistake when he decides to "name" the island twice in the opener. To wit: Franzen tells us in the second sentence that the island in question is "officially called Alejandro Selkirk" and then circles back in the last sentence to this idea but with the added information that the name stems from "Alexander Selkirk," the adventurer who most likely inspired the book "Robinson Crusoe."

my question is, why not tell us both things at once: the name of the island and where it came from? in my opinion, Franzen should have omitted naming the island in the second sentence (after all, what difference does it make if we know the official name of the island so soon? the real point is what kind of island it is) and, instead, included its name (and naming) as an organic entry into the significance of who it was named for. that being said, the paragraph does arrive exactly where Franzen has been leading it: to the words "Farther Away," which works to perfectly bookend the opening paragraph as a kind of self-contained work of art--given that the article itself is entitled "Farther Away."

perhaps the real genius of this work, though, is how the title's subhead plants a question in the reader's mind that then the essay waltzes in to answer. it's quite stunning. so stunning in fact that it deserves its own post, which i will get to this week. (oh, and in that forthcoming post, i'll very briefly offer a note on Franzen's ability to write in a voice that weaves together both formal and informal language. it's an important skill, so it seems right to save it for next time.)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

sequencing, logical



the most under-examined idea in writing is the life-or-death importance of logical sequencing. (note: if you are not, for whatever reason, immediately nodding along with me here, sort of saying to yourself, "toooooootally," then this may not be the post for you. not to worry, however, as i will furnish an "introductory post to the life-or-death importance of logical sequencing" at some point this or next month.)

so read this short paragraph (published recently in The Atlantic). pay particular attention to how each sentence does or doesn't foreshadow (prefigure, if you like) the sentence next to arrive. can you follow the idea as it threads forward? what about knots--see any of them?

"The summer movie season hit full mast less than a week ago, when millions of viewers took to the theaters for the highest-grossing Memorial Day weekend box office ever. I was one of those viewers. Something separated me from the rest, though. Along with most everyone, I love movies for what they have to offer: Namely, the chance to watch awesome stuff, like good-looking people blowing things up. But as I scanned the crowd in my theater, I noticed that I was alone--in that I'd come alone."

now most likely you rolled easily from the opening lines to the third sentence ("Something separated me from the rest, though"). But with the advent of the next sentence, a brick wall emerged.

so here's what went wrong and why: the forward threading became tangled in itself, reemerging further down the paragraph, but by which time it was too late). or, simply put, writing works when it allows the reader to anticipate the coming sentence even before it arrives. if words, however, show up that confuse our predictions (and, importantly, when the confusion doesn't seem "intentional"), the thread is lost, the ball is dropped, the line goes slack.

let's look at that exact moment.

"Something separated me from the rest, though."

so we want to know what that "something" is? our brains see the writer "priming the pump" for a Big Reveal, and damn it we're going to miss out. but then (sound of needle pulled across vinyl) this sentence arrives: "Along with most everyone, I love movies for what they have to offer: Namely, the chance to watch awesome stuff, like good-looking people blowing things up."

what does that have to do with how the author is separate from moviegoers? it doesn't. in fact, the sentence tells us what is the same about the author and moviegoers. and that, no matter how post-modern you may be, is poor sequencing. because, yes, while the author does come around to telling us that he both arrived and intends to view this movies alone (loner!), the paragraph's natural logic has been hurt. in short, the logic failed to find the best path forward. and in writing, the best path forward is most always modifying forward (very, very few exceptions granted).

if you want, spend a fruitful 90 seconds rearranging the paragraph and then post your reworked version (in its more natural sequence) in the comment section.

Monday, June 6, 2011

profusion, word



this we know: as writers, our craft depends largely on our ability to harness an authentic voice, the part of ourselves that is real and genuine and sincere. this we also know: as writers, our craft depends largely on our ability to harness an authentic relationship with the reader, a real and genuine and sincere connection with the audience. this paradox is at the heart of what makes writing and reading so interconnected, so circular--and, yes, so maddening. professionals in this field, then, are those scribes among us who've mastered "writing like a reader," and "reading like a writer." one (mundane but useful) way writers accomplish this art is by scanning their work for something i call "word profusion," that is, the overuse (usually unintentional) of a given word in a sentence or paragraph.

here's a real-world example (from a text we've previously looked at, though for different reasons).

"In 1900, Josiah Flynt Willard, writer, amateur sociologist, and sometime hobo, published Notes of an Itinerant Policeman. In the book, he describes the often-unsavory world of fin de siècle American tramps: their begging strategies, their caste systems and codes, their hot tempers and underdeveloped intellects, their reasons for becoming tramps in the first place (number one: liquor). One of the book’s more compelling chapters is entitled What Tramps Read. This is one facet of tramp life one might not immediately think of, but its inclusion in the book makes a lot of sense." (emphasis mine.)

so the writing here is beautiful, clear, linear. just one problem, though: an over-reliance on the word "one." to be fair, however, the writer does use the word "one" in a couple different ways, so that mitigates the profusion (though it's still a tad distracting).

for our purposes, let's think about how to replace a few of those "one's." here's what i'd do.

"[...] their reasons for becoming tramps in the first place (chief cause: liquor). One of the book’s more compelling chapters is entitled What Tramps Read. This is a facet of tramp life one might not immediately think of, but its inclusion in the book makes a lot of sense."

i didn't change the second "one" because its usage denotes "the reader," rather than (strictly speaking) a number.

by the way, i recommend only doing this sort of scan when you're near the publishing/sharing zone. peccadilloes such as these don't matter a wit when we are still in the drafting process. in fact, focusing on this sort of stuff while still in the early-to-middle stages will stifle your flow. it's like ironing a garment before its all been stitched together.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

part two, punctuation as word(s)




so in an earlier post, i drew attention to the art of using punctuation to stand in for actual words. this post is similarly positioned, though with one notable exception: rather than looking at a winning example of this technique, we will look at an attempt that feels decidedly less successful. yeah, but why spend time looking at flawed writing? because understanding why certain things in writing don't work can be just as edifying as understanding why certain things in writing do work.

to wit: The New Yorker's News Desk just recently published an online piece about an incredible time-lapse video of manhattan. let's look at the word choice and punctuation in the third sentence (emphasis mine).

"More than fifty thousand time-lapse videos have been posted to Vimeo, the online art house to YouTube’s multiplex, and many of them are beautiful. But on Tuesday evening, Josh Owens posted one that struck us as more ambitious and impressive than most. Maybe it’s because much of it was shot from hotel windows in Times Square, where we have our offices: at ground level, in real time, it can be a dispiriting neighborhood, but Owens reminded us that it’s also a glorious one, at least when it’s sped up around seven hundred and twenty times. (The interval between frames as Owens shot them was anywhere from five seconds to a full minute.)"

so what words (or connection) is the writer trying to convey with the colon use? one way find out is by mentally removing the colon and then asking yourself what words you would employ to make the relationship clear between the two independent clauses. give it a go.

okay, what words did you insert? let me guess, you couldn't do it? and that's fine, because it can't really be done. there is no "natural" segue that our minds mentally insert in order to bridge the idea directly before the colon to the idea immediately after it. and when that's the case, the colon is helpless. yes, the colon is an extremely pliant punctuation mark, but the above example mishandles the usage. it requires too much of a leap. and thus the direction--that is, the forward propulsion of the sentence--gets dropped. and it doesn't get picked back up again until it's too late. and that's the take-home lesson here: professional writers are expert idea threaders. they weave words,* and the result is what we call Flow.

so without spending more than five seconds thinking about this, here is how i would fix the situation. you decide which one has more flow; and flow, after all, is the only reason to examine this sort of minutia in such detail.

original:

"Maybe it’s because much of it was shot from hotel windows in Times Square, where we have our offices: at ground level, in real time, it can be a dispiriting neighborhood, but Owens reminded us that it’s also a glorious one, at least when it’s sped up around seven hundred and twenty times.

mine:

"Maybe it’s because much of it was shot from hotel windows in Times Square, where we have our offices. This neighborhood, experienced at ground level and in real time, can be particularly dispiriting, yet Owens reminded us that it’s also a glorious tableau, at least when sped up around seven hundred and twenty times.

____________
*re: the importance of threading and weaving one's words, look up the etymology of "text" next time your bored.

Video: Manhattan Accelerando

W's, the five


One of my favorite strategies for opening any piece of writing is the seemingly conservative Five W's approach--the right-off-the-bat establishment of who, what, when, where, and why (and sometimes how).

this technique is so venerable and journalistic-y that many writers, wary of being labeled dry and flat, avoid opening with such overt exposition. in its place, they will often open with an anecdote or some other non-traditional "lead."

all well and good. who doesn't love a good hook? that said, there is something so intensely beautiful about an opening sentence that, right from the very start, clearly grounds the reader on all points of the expository compass. it's clarity at its purest. and perhaps this above all: there's a stark immediacy about such a sentence.

example, you say? let's look at Robert Ito's "An Occasional Hobo," a piece which ran in The Believer's June 2011 issue.

The piece opens thus:

In 1900, Josiah Flynt Willard, writer, amateur sociologist, and sometime hobo, published Notes of an Itinerant Policeman. In the book, he describes the often-unsavory world of fin de siècle American tramps: their begging strategies, their caste systems and codes, their hot tempers and underdeveloped intellects, their reasons for becoming tramps in the first place (number one: liquor).

great opener. and yet look at how reliant it is upon the 5W's.

When? "1900."

Who? "Josiah Flynt Willard, writer, amateur sociologist, and sometime hobo."

What? "published Notes of an Itinerant Policeman."
Where? [the where the book probes is] "the often-unsavory world of fin de siècle [fancy way of saying end of a century--usually, but not always, the 1800's] American tramps."

Why? [the why is not yet revealed, but, as readers, we know it will be developed as the article unfolds. hence, we have something to read for--namely, to discover why Willard wrote this book and (since writing about hobos presents all sorts of challenges) how he gained the needed access.]

give me a piece that opens with such immediacy and clarity, and i'm all in. i trust such a writer. i can commit to this person, the article, the prose. i feel in good, careful hands.

and that's what cogent openers can do. they orient the reader. and from this secure foothold, the article is free to fly (within reason, of course).

now it goes without saying (then why am i saying it?) that an opener which simply uses the 5W's for 5W's sake runs the risk of seeming Composition 101-y. is there anything worse? which is why i want to stress that i am NOT endorsing this technique as a ready-made device that works independent of a writer's particular style. what i am saying, however, is give it a go; see if this strategy works for a given piece--if only in the drafting stage (it's a great clarifying tool). maybe you only need to use three or four of the 5W's. or maybe you use two sentences, as Ito does, to unfurl them. there are no rules. none. make it work for you. play around and develop an organic feel for this technique. it will serve you and your audience well.

in my next post, i will return to Ito's piece. my focus will be on his diction (word choice) and the polishes a more careful editor might have suggested.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

word(s), punctuation as




i'm interested in prose; that is, how WRITTEN words mean. concomitantly, i'm interested in how we teach prose, read prose, learn prose, school prose.

one day, yes, i hope to (self?) publish a (verrrrrrry meta) book on how lingering over certain examples of prose can make us better writers...if not necessarily make us write better (and there is a difference); for now, however, i will confine myself to this blog, the classroom, and the parenthetical asides which continue to metastasize with every post.

okay, so here is something that caught my eye:

in last week's new yorker magazine, rachel aviv wrote, God Knows Where I Am, a stunning narrative-based mental health piece.

I thought the below sentence would be interesting to consider for the purposes of "reading as a writer," which, for me, means reading not only for WHAT the text says, but also for HOW the text says it.

aviv writes:

"The hospital's crowded wards resembled those studied in Erving Goffman's 1961 book, 'Asylums,' which showed how, through years of institutional life, people lost their identities and learned to be perfect mental patients--dull, unmotivated, and helpless."

when you see the dash near the end of the sentence, what words are you tacitly filling in? take a second. reread the sentence, and imagine that you have been told to remove the dash and replace it with actual words. what did you insert? most likely, it was something like this: "that is, if you consider the 'perfect patient' to be...."

in effect, the rewritten sentences reads: "The hospital's crowded wards resembled those studied in Erving Goffman's 1961 book, 'Asylums,' which showed how, through years of institutional life, people lost their identities and learned to be perfect mental patients, that is, if you consider the 'perfect patient' to be dull, unmotivated, and helpless."

jeez. how heavy does this sentence suddenly become when we actually insert the words for which the dash was standing in?

and that's what i love about aviv's use of punctuation here. she's able to employ the dash so as to let the reader co-author a critique of the "perfect patient."

it's an elegant style and requires (from the author) a deep confidence in both the reader and the clarity of the sentence.

i should also note that this maneuver of using punctuation to replace words is hardly new nor difficult. we do it all the time--example: "Netflix just sent me Amélie, Y Tu Mamá También, and City of God." the commas are replacing the word "and," just as the comma is replacing the word "but" in "he was an important, now forgotten artist."

in using punctuation in place of word(s), aviv's use of the dash is not some radical difference in "kind," but rather in "degree." and something i admire when done well, and, of course, want to encourage (though very sparingly and with great prudence) in my own writing and my students.