Several short sentences about writing
by Verlyn Klinkenborg
This book is written almost like poetry, no chapters, no sub-heads, no guidance to carry you along through the book, and yet I couldn't stop reading. Every page full of insights with a specific focus on how to improve the core of any writing, the sentence. A book that has already made a major impact on my own writing process. Highly recommended.
Know what each sentence says, what it doesn't say, and what it implies.
At first, it will help to make short sentences, short enough to feel the variations in length.
There are innumerable ways to write badly. The usual way is making sentences that don't say what you think they do.
You can say smart, interesting, complicated things using short sentences. How long is a good idea? Does it become less good if it's expressed in two sentences instead of one?
Writing short sentences restores clarity, the directness of subject and verb. Writing short sentences will help you write strong, balanced sentences of any length. You don't have to write short sentences forever. Only until you find a compelling reason for a long sentence that's as clear and direct as a short sentence.
One way to keep sentences short is to keep the space between them as empty as possible. The space between the period and the subject of the next sentence.
It's perfectly possible to make wretched short sentences. But it's hard to on making them for long because they sound so wretched and because it's easy to fix them. Making them longer is not the way to fix them.
Every word is optional until it proves to be essential.
Your job as a writer is making sentences.
Most of the sentences you make will need to be killed. The rest will need to be fixed. This will be true for a long time.
You can only become a better writer by becoming a better reader. You have far more experience as a reader than you do as a writer.
Writing in school
You were taught in school that each sentence rests on all the others like a single card in a house of cards, a carefully constructed house of logic, fragile and easily dislodged.
That's one reason school papers often begin with several false starts.
The obsession with transition negates a basic truth about writing, a magical truth. You can get anywhere from anywhere, always and almost instantly.
There is no single necessary order.
And then one day.
You know exactly how those four words feel. You know exactly what they do. When you get lost in your writing, remember them.
Don't use them: think about the possibilities they contain.
Most overcrowded sentences can be broken apart easily. The words and phrases and thoughts they contain somehow seemed to belong together in the shelter found to the left of the period.
You were taught to write as part of a transaction that had almost nothing to do with real communication, learning to treat the making of sentences as busywork.
Every work of literature is the result of thousands and thousands of decisions. Intricate, minute decisions—the living tissue of a writer's choices.
Everything you notice is important. If you notice something, it's because it's important. Noticing means thinking with all your senses.
Rushing to notice never works, nor does trying to notice.
Attention requires a cunning passivity.
Volunteer sentences and metaphors
A metaphor in the prose you were taught to write were a stage prop, a paraphrase, a clarification, at best, nearly always cumbersome, bordering on cliché. Too often stretched out over three or four sentences.
A true metaphor is a swift and violent twisting of the language.
A cliché isn't just a familiar, overused saying. It's the debris of someone else's thinking.
Volunteer sentences occur because you're not considering the actual sentence you're making. You're looking past it toward your meaning somewhere down the road, or toward the intent of the whole piece.
Though your meaning in the intent of the whole piece depend entirely on the sentence you're making.
You're distracted from the sentence by your intention—distracted from the only thing of any value to the reader.
The writers job isn't accepting sentences. The job is making them, word by word.
Volunteer sentences, volunteer subjects, volunteer structures, avoid them all.
How well you read aloud reveals how well you understand the syntax of a sentence.
Do you remember, in school, going around the room, each student in turn reading a paragraph out loud? Remember how well some student read and others, how badly?
It was a difference in comprehension. Not of the sentence's meaning, but of its texture, pace, structure, actuality
Read until your ear detects a problem.
This small internal quaver, this inner disturbance, is the most useful evidence you'll ever get.
Study your sentences
Turn every sentence into its own paragraph.
Having all your sentences in a column, one above the other, makes them easier to examine. You'll notice how your sentences cling to each other instead of accepting their separateness.
- How many sentences begin with the subject?
- How many begin with an opening phrase before the subject?
- Is the subject of the sentence an actor capable of performing the action of the verb?
- Can you adjust the sentence so it is?
- Are the verbs active, energetic?
- Is every phrase in it's proper place, every word?
- Can the sentence be broken in two or three?
Many people assume there's an inherent conflict between creativity and a critical, analytics awareness of the medium you work in.
The myth of flow
Flow is something the reader experiences, not the writer.
If you think that writing should flow, and it doesn't, what are you likely to feel? Obstructed, defeated, inadequate, blocked, perhaps even stupid.
The idea of writer's block exists largely because of the notion that writing should flow.
If you accept that writing is hard work, then everything is just as it should be. Your labor isn't a sign of defeat. It's a sign of engagement.
The difficulty of writing isn't a sign of failure. It's simply the nature of the work itself.
The more you know about making sentences, the easier it is to fix them.
"Flow" is often a synonym for ignorance and laziness. It's also a sign of haste, the urge to be done. So many writers worry that their writing isn't flowing.
Don't underestimate how hard it is to discard a cliché like "flow." Getting rid of useless, even harmful, ideas is hard work.
"Natural" is another word that invites suspicion. Humans can justify almost anything by calling it natural. There's nothing natural about writing except the tendency to assume that it's natural, thanks to a false analogy with talking.
Let's suppose there's no such thing as writer's block.
- loss of confidence
- forgetting to think
- failing to prepare
- not reading enough
- giving up on patience
- hastening to write
- fearing your audience
- never really trying to understand how sentences work
Above all, there's never learning to trust yourself or your capacity to learn or think or perceive.
It's always worth asking yourself if you can imagine saying a sentence and adjusting it until you can.
Ask yourself, what exactly am I trying to say?
The answer to that question is often the sentence you need to write down.
It's sometimes worth reworking the piece you're writing is if it were a letter or a long email to a friend. Suddenly things are clearer and simpler and more direct, as if they were being spoken.
Something else happens too. There's suddenly a wider variety of tone, an emotional latitude, a sense that the reader will be able to fill in the gaps, even the possibility of humor.
We've all had those moments that feel like inspiration. They're enticing. The mistake is overvaluing them. You try to protect those sentences.
That excitement matters, and the memory of it is worth preserving, even if those sentences aren't.
Concentration, attention, excitement, will be part of your working state. Daily.
Flow, inspiration—the spontaneous emission of sentences—will not.
That distinction is worth keeping in mind.
The most damaging and obstructive cluster of ideas you face as a writer are nearly all related to the idea of "flow". Like "genius." And "sincerity." And "inspiration."
Distrust these words. They stand for cherished myths, but myths nonetheless.
Inspiration has nothing to do with the sustained effort of making prose.
Anything you think you need in order to write—or be "inspired" to write or "get in the mood" to write—becomes a prohibition when it's lacking. Learn to write anywhere, at any time, in any conditions, with anything, starting from nowhere.
If you want the reader to feel your sincerity, your sentences have to enact sincerity—verbally, syntactically, even rhythmically. They have to reveal the signs of sincerity—a modesty and directness—just as you do when you're talking sincerely.
You be the narrator. Let us be the readers. Being the narrator is not the same as being yourself. It's a role, and a dramatic one. Absorb it and inhabit it.
You don't need to think about style.
Pursue clarity instead. In the pursuit of clarity, style reveals itself.
All writing is revision.
Sometimes you know just what you want to say, and you find the words to say exactly that. But just as often what you want to say emerges as the sentence takes shape.
the thought is only a hint—the sentence becomes the thought by bringing it fully into being.
Outlining means organizing the sequence of your meanings, not your sentences. It derogates the making of sentences. It ignores the suddenness of thought.
It prevents discovery within the act of writing. It overemphasizes logic and chronology because they offer apparently "natural" structures.
It fails to realizing that writing comes from writing.
You're more likely to find the right path—the interesting path through your subject and thoughts—in a sentence-by-sentence search than in an outline.
It wastes the contemplative space of writing. Can you think all the good thoughts in advance?
It's meant to free you from thinking as you write. You'll never know what you think until you escape your outline.
Here's a better approach, squander your material.
Don't ration it, saving the best for last. You don't know what the best is, or the last.
Use it up. There's plenty more where that came from.
Instead: research, read, notice, and take notes. Then reread your notes, and take notes on them. Take notes on your thoughts.
Most of all, take notes on what interests you. Be certain to mark out what interests you.
Learn to be patient in the presence of your thoughts.
If you're paying attention, you'll notice that some of your thoughts interest you and some don't. You'll stop and rethink an interesting thought, pause in its presence.
Resist the temptation to start organizing and structuring your thoughts too soon. Postpone the search for order.
Writing a good sentence
Look for a sentence that interests you, a sentence whose possibilities you like because of the potential you see in its wake.
The opening sentence needs no cleverness or awareness of where the piece will take us. The opening sentence is only creating an opening for the next sentence.
You want to begin the piece, not introduce it. A first sentence already moving at speed vs a first sentence that wants to generalize while clearing its throat.
Listen for rhythm. Keep reading and rereading what you've written.
There's often a fine sentence lurking within a bad sentence, a better sentence hiding under a good sentence. Work word by word until you discover it.
One day you'll write a sentence that says more than its words alone can say. You'll know that it says what you mean without having said it, and you'll know that the reader knows it too.
This is writing by implication. It lets the reader complete the thought.
Writing doesn't prove anything, and it only rarely persuades. It does something better. It attests. It witness. It shares your interest in what you've noticed. It reports on the nature of your attention. It suggests the possibilities of the world around you. The evidence of the world is it presents itself to you.
The logic of writing learned in school is obsessed with transition. Overused, nearly meaningless words and phrases.
- In fact.
- On the one hand.
- On the other hand.
- In one respect.
- Of course.
They often come first in the sentence, trying to steer the reader's understanding from the front, as if the reader were incapable of following a logical shift in the middle of a sentence.
Imagine how obnoxious that is, that persistent effort to predetermine and overgovern the reader's response.
Experiment: try removing "but" wherever you can, and see if the sense of negation or contradiction isn't still present.
Resist chronology. Break the complexity of what you've learned into the very small pieces of a mosaic. Shaped not by the clumping of evidence but by your conscious decisions as a writer. Why reproduce the whole scene when only one moment matters?
You were taught in school to fill papers with quotation, building authority from the evidence you gathered.
But what if you were to muster your own authority?
What if the reader trusted your prose, listened with interest to what you're saying fo the sake of what you're saying, instead of noting the complacency, the deference, even the ceremony with which you bow to the authorities you cite?
What if the reader believed in you? Watched for your perception? What if the reader felt your authority and thought about quoting you?
Authority always rests in the hands of the reader, who can simply close the book and choose another.
All the authority a writer ever possesses is the authority the reader grants him. Yet the reader grants it in response to her sense of the writer's authority.
Authority arises only from clarity of language and clarity of perception. The question is, will the reader follow you?
Rhythm is a vital source of the writer's authority. It anticipates the intelligibility of the sentence. It grounds the tongue and the mind. It creates balance and propulsion. It's deeply assuring and worth getting right.
Most of all: authority arises from the way you write, not from the subject you write about.
You may be afraid your ideas aren't good enough, your sentence snot clever or original enough. But what if your ideas are coherent and thoughtful? What if your perceptions are accurate and true? Your sentences clear and direct?
It's surprising how often ideas that seem obvious to you are in no way apparent to the reader. What seems like common sense to you may come as a revelation to the reader.
Part of your job is to say how things are, to attest to life as it is. This will feel strange at first. You'll wonder whether you're allowed to say thing that sound not merely observant but true.
True discipline is remembering and recovering—inventing if necessary—what interests you. If it doesn't interest you, how could it possibly interest anyone else?
Trust the reader
The books that trusted you most may be the ones you love best.
When you trust the reader, the devices of distrust fall away. The pretense of logic, the obsession with transition, the creeping, incremental movement of sentences, sentences stepping on each other's heels.
The reader you can trust is a reader predisposed to trust you.
Trusting the reader is a way of controlling the temptation to over-narrate, over-describe, over-interpret, over-signify.
A good reader will follow a good writer wherever she goes. And the good writer will do all she can to help.
Learn to read your own work as a reader. Learn to trust yourself as the reader.
Show a tender care for the reader's attention, his knowledge of place and time, his sense of his whereabouts in the pages before him.
When are you done
"Done enough" sounds too callow to describe the compromise, so call it "perfection enough."
As perfect as possible under the circumstances.
- Revise toward brevity. Remove words instead of adding them.
- Toward directness.
- Toward simplicity.
- Toward clarity. A constant lookout for ambiguity.
- Toward rhythm.
- Toward literalness.
- Toward implication.
- Toward variation.
- Toward silence.
- Toward presence. The quiet authority of your prose.
Never stop reading.
Say more than you thought you knew how to say in sentences better than you ever imagined for the read reader who reads between the lines.