At times, it helps to think of writing as carpentry. That way, writers and editors can work from a plan and use tools stored on their workbench. You can borrow a writing tool at any time. And here's a secret: Unlike hammers, chisels, and rakes, writing tools never have to be returned. They can be cleaned, sharpened, and passed on.
Each week, for the next 50, I will describe a writing tool that has been useful to me. I have borrowed these tools from writers and editors, from authors of books on writing, and from teachers and writing coaches. Many come from the X-ray reading of texts I admire.
I have described most of these tools in earlier lists, first of 20 and then 30. In those renditions, I defined each tool in shorthand, 50 words or less, without elaboration or exemplification. In spite of -- perhaps because of -- their brevity, many aspiring writers found them useful, and the tools popped up all over the Internet, translated into several languages. This warm acceptance has given me the courage to do more with these tools, to hone them, to discard some rusty ones, and to add to my collection.
As you study and discuss these, please remember:
· These are tools and not rules. They work outside the realm of right and wrong, and inside the world of cause and effect. You will find many examples of good writing that seem to "violate" the general advice described here.
· It will not help to apply these tools at once, just as aspiring golfers swing and miss if they try to remember the 30 or so different elements of an effective golf swing.
· You will become handy with these tools over time.You will begin to recognize their use in the stories you read. You will see chances to apply them when you revise your own work. Eventually, they will become part of your flow, natural and automatic.
· You are already using many of these tools without knowing it. It is impossible to speak, write, or read without them. But now these tools have names, so you can begin to talk about them in different ways. As your critical vocabulary grows, your writing will improve.
My friend Tom French, who won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, told me he liked my tool list because it covered writing from the "sub-atomic to the metaphysical level." By sub-atomic, he meant the ways words, phrases, and sentences work. By metaphysical, he meant the ways writers live, dream, and work.
With that as both introduction and promise, let us begin.
Begin sentences with subjects and verbs, letting subordinate elements branch to the right. Even a long, long sentence can be clear and powerful when the subject and verb make meaning early.
To use this tool, imagine each sentence you write printed on an infinitely wide piece of paper. In English, a sentence stretches from left to right. Now imagine this: A reporter writes a lead sentence with subject and verb at the beginning, followed by other subordinate elements, creating what scholars call a "right-branching sentence."
I just created one. Subject and verb of the main clause join on the left ("A reporter writes") while all other elements branch off to the right. Here's another right-branching sentence, written by Lydia Polgreen as the lead of a news story in The New York Times:
Rebels seized control of Cap Haitien, Haiti's second largest city, on Sunday, meeting little resistance as hundreds of residents cheered, burned the police station, plundered food from port warehouses and looted the airport, which was quickly closed. Police officers and armed supporters of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled.
That first sentence is 37 words long and rippling with action. The sentence is so full, in fact, that it threatens to fly apart like some overheated engine. But the writer keeps control by creating meaning in the first three words: "Rebels seized control..." Think of that main clause as the locomotive that pulls all the cars that follow.
Master writers can craft page after page of sentences written in this structure. Consider this passage by John Steinbeck from "Cannery Row," describing the routine of a marine scientist named Doc:
He didn't need a clock. He had been working in a tidal pattern so long that he could feel a tide change in his sleep. In the dawn he awakened, looked out through the windshield, and saw that the water was already retreating down the bouldery flat. He drank some hot coffee, ate three sandwiches, and had a quart of beer.
The tide goes out imperceptibly. The boulders show and seem to rise up and the ocean recedes leaving little pools, leaving wet weed and moss and sponge, iridescence and brown and blue and China red. On the bottoms lie the incredible refuse of the sea, shells broken and chipped and bits of skeleton, claws, the whole sea bottom a fantastic cemetery on which the living scamper and scramble.
In each sentence, Steinbeck places subject and verb at or near the beginning. Clarity and narrative energy flow through the passage, as one sentence builds upon another. And he avoids monotonous structure by varying the length of his sentences.
Subject and verb often get separated in prose, usually because we want to tell the reader something about the subject before we get to the verb. When we do this, even for good reasons, we risk confusing the reader:
A bill that would exclude tax income from the assessed value of new homes from the state education funding formula could mean a loss of revenue for Chesapeake County schools.
Eighteen words separate the subject "bill" from its weak verb "could mean," a fatal flaw that turns what could be an important civic story into gibberish.
If the writer wants to create suspense, or build tension, or make the reader wait and wonder, or join a journey of discovery, or hold on for dear life, she can save the verb until the end. Workshop:
Read through an edition of The New York Times with a pencil. Mark the location of subjects and verbs.
Do the same with a collection of your own stories.
Do the same with a draft of a story you're working on now.
The next time you struggle with a sentence, see if you can rewrite it by placing subject and verb at the beginning.
Writing Tool #2: Use Strong Verbs
Use verbs in their strongest form, the simple present or past. Strong verbs create action, save words, and reveal the players.
President John F. Kennedy testified that his favorite book was "From Russia With Love," the 1957 James Bond adventure by Ian Fleming. This choice revealed more about JFK than we knew at the time and created a cult of 007 that persists to this day.
The power in Fleming's prose flows from the use of active verbs. In sentence after sentence, page after page, England's favorite secret agent, or his beautiful companion, or his villainous adversary performs the action of the verb.
Bond climbed the few stairs and unlocked his door and locked and bolted it behind him. Moonlight filtered through the curtains. He walked across and turned on the pink-shaded lights on the dressing-table. He stripped off his clothes and went into the bathroom and stood for a few minutes under the shower. …… He cleaned his teeth and gargled with a sharp mouthwash to get rid of the taste of the day and turned off the bathroom light and went back into the bedroom.
Bond drew aside one curtain and opened wide the tall windows and stood, holding the curtains open and looking out across the great boomerang curve of water under the riding moon. The night breeze felt wonderfully cool on his naked body. He looked at his watch. It said two o'clock.
Bond gave a shuddering yawn. He let the curtains drop back into place. He bent to switch off the lights on the dressing-table. Suddenly he stiffened and his heart missed a beat.
There had been a nervous giggle from the shadows at the back of the room. A girl's voice said, "Poor Mister Bond. You must be tired. Come to bed."
In writing this passage, Fleming followed the advice of his countryman George Orwell, who wrote of verbs: "Never use the passive when you can use the active."
Never say never, Mr. Orwell, lest you turn one of the writer's most reliable tools into a rigid rule. But we honor you for describing the relationship between language abuse and political abuse, and for revealing how corrupt leaders use the passive voice to obscure unspeakable truths and shroud responsibility for their actions. They say: "It must be admitted after the report is reviewed that mistakes were made," rather than, "I read the report, and I admit I made a mistake."
News writers reach often for the simple active verb. Consider this New York Times lead by Carlotta Gall on the suicidal desperation of Afghan women: "Waiflike, draped in a pale blue veil, Madina, 20, sits on her hospital bed, bandages covering the terrible, raw burns on her neck and chest. Her hands tremble. She picks nervously at the soles of her feet and confesses that three months earlier she set herself on fire with kerosene."
While Fleming used the past tense to narrate his adventure, Gall prefers verbs in the present tense. This strategy immerses the reader in the immediacy of experience, as if we were sitting –– right now -- beside the poor woman in her grief.
Both Fleming and Gall avoid the verb qualifiers that attach themselves to standard prose like barnacles to the hull of a ship:
· Sort of
· Tend to
· Kind of
· Must have
· Seemed to
· Could have
· Use to
Scrape away these crustaceans during revision, and the ship of your prose will glide toward meaning with efficient speed and grace.
Verbs fall into three categories: active, passive, and forms of the verb "to be." Review three of your stories and circle the verb forms with a pencil. In the margins, mark each verb by category.
Look for occasions to convert passive or "to be" verbs into the active. For example, "It was her observation that ……" becomes "She observed ……"
In your own work and in the newspaper, search for verb attachments and see what happens when you cut them from a story.
Read "Politics and the English Language," by George Orwell. As you listen to political speech, mark those occasions when politicians or other leaders use the passive voice to avoid responsibility for problems or mistakes.
Writing Tool #3: Beware of Adverbs
Beware of adverbs. They can dilute the meaning of the verb or repeat it.
The authors of the classic "Tom Swift" adventures for boys loved the exclamation point and the adverb. Consider this brief passage from "Tom Swift and His Great Searchlight":
"Look!" suddenly exclaimed Ned. "There's the agent now! ... I'm going to speak to him!" impulsively declared Ned.
That exclamation point after "Look" should be enough to heat the prose for the young reader, but the author adds "suddenly" and "exclaimed" for good measure. Time and again, the writer uses the adverb, not to change our understanding of the verb, but to intensify it. The silliness of this style led to a form of pun called the "Tom Swiftie," where the adverb conveys the punch line:
"I'm an artist," he said easily.
"I need some pizza now," he said crustily.
"I'm the Venus de Milo," she said disarmingly.
At their best, adverbs spice up a verb or adjective. At their worst, they express a meaning already contained in it:
· "The blast completely destroyed the church office."
· "The cheerleader gyrated wildly before the screaming fans."
· "The accident totally severed the boy's arm."
· "The spy peered furtively through the bushes."
Consider the effect of deleting the adverbs:
· The blast destroyed the church office.
· The cheerleader gyrated before the screaming fans.
· The accident severed the boy's arm.
· The spy peered through the bushes.
In each case, the deletion shortens the sentence, sharpens the point, and creates elbow room for the verb.
A half-century after his death, Meyer Berger remains one of great stylists in the history of The New York Times. One of his last columns describes the care received in a Catholic hospital by an old blind violinist:
The staff talked with Sister Mary Fintan, who (in) charge of the hospital. With her consent, they brought the old violin to Room 203. It had not been played for years, but Laurence Stroetz groped for it. His long white fingers stroked it. He tuned it, with some effort, and tightened the old bow. He lifted it to his chin and the lion's mane came down.
The vigor of verbs and the absence of adverbs mark Berger's prose. As the old man plays "Ave Maria……"
Black-clad and white-clad nuns moved lips in silent prayer. They choked up. The long years on the Bowery had not stolen Laurence Stroetz's touch. Blindness made his fingers stumble down to the violin bridge, but they recovered. The music died and the audience pattered applause. The old violinist bowed and his sunken cheeks creased in a smile.
How much better that "the audience pattered applause" than that they "applauded politely."
Excess adverbiage reflects the style of an immature writer, but the masters can stumble as well. John Updike wrote a one-paragraph essay about the beauty of the beer can before the invention of the pop-top. He dreamed of how suds once "foamed eagerly in the exultation of release." As I've read that sentence over the years, I've grown more impatient with "eagerly." It clots the space between a great verb ("foamed") and a great noun ("exultation"), which personify the beer and tell us all we need to know about eagerness.
Adverbs have their place in effective prose. But use them sparingly.
Workshop Look through the newspaper for any word that ends in ––ly. If it is an adverb, delete it with your pencil and read the new sentence aloud.
Do the same for your last three essays, stories, or papers. Circle the adverbs, delete them, and decide if the new sentence is better or worse.
Read through your adverbs again and mark those that modify the verb or adjective as opposed to those that just intensify it.
Look for weak verb/adverb combinations that can be revised into strong verbs: "She went quickly down the stairs" can become "She dashed down the stairs." Writing Tool #4: Period As a Stop Sign
Place strong words at the beginning of sentences and paragraphs, and at the end. The period acts as a stop sign. Any word next to the period says, "Look at me." Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" advises the writer to "Place emphatic words in a sentence at the end," which offers an example of its own rule. The most emphatic word appears at "the end." Application of this tool ––- an ancient rhetorical device ––- will improve your prose in a flash.
In any sentence, the comma acts as a speed bump and the period as a stop sign. At the period, the thought of the sentence is completed. That slight pause in reading flow magnifies the final word. This effect is intensified at the end of a paragraph, where the final words often adjoin white space. In a column of type, the reader's eyes are drawn to the words next to the white space.
Emphatic word order helps the news writer solve the most difficult problems. Consider this news lead from The Philadelphia Inquirer. The writer must make sense of three powerful news elements: the death of a United States Senator, the collision of aircraft, and a tragedy at an elementary school:
A private plane carrying U.S. Sen. John Heinz collided with a helicopter in clear skies over Lower Merion Township yesterday, triggering a fiery, midair explosion that rained burning debris over an elementary school playground.
Seven people died: Heinz, four pilots, and two first-grade girls at play outside the school. At least five people on the ground were injured, three of them children, one of whom was in critical condition with burns.
Flaming and smoking wreckage tumbled to the earth around Merion Elementary School on Bowman Avenue at 12:19 p.m., but the gray stone building and its occupants were spared. Frightened children ran from the playground as teachers herded others outside. Within minutes, anxious parents began streaming to the school in jogging suits, business clothes, house-coats. Most were rewarded with emotional reunions, amid the smell of acrid smoke.
On most days, any of the three news elements would lead the paper. Combined, they form an overpowering news tapestry, one that the reporter and editor must handle with care. What matters most in this story? The death of a senator? A spectacular crash? The death of children?
In the first paragraph, the writer chose to mention the crash and the senator upfront, and saved "elementary school playground" for the end. Throughout the passage, subjects and verbs come early -–– like the locomotive and coal car of a railroad train ––- saving other interesting words for the end ––- like a caboose.
Consider, also, the order in which the writer lists the anxious parents, who arrive at the school in "jogging clothes, business suits, house-coats." Any other order weakens the sentence. Placing "house-coats" at the end builds the urgency of the situation, parents racing from their homes dressed as they are.
Putting strong stuff at the beginning and the end allows writers to hide weaker stuff in the middle. In the passage above, notice how the writer hides the less important news elements -–– the who and the when ("Lower Merion Township yesterday") -–– in the middle of the lead. This strategy also works for attributing quotations:
"It was one horrible thing to watch," said Helen Amadio, who was walking near her Hampden Avenue home when the crash occurred. "It exploded like a bomb. Black smoke just poured."
Begin with a good quote. Hide the attribution in the middle. End with a good quote.
These tools are as old as rhetoric itself. Near the end of Shakespeare's famous tragedy, a character announces to Macbeth: "The Queen, my Lord, is dead."
This astonishing example of the power of emphatic word order is followed by one of the darkest passages in all of literature. Macbeth says:
She should have died hereafter;
There would have a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
The poet has one great advantage over those of us who write prose. He knows where the line will end. He gets to emphasize a word at the end of a line, a sentence, a paragraph. We prose writers make do with the sentence and paragraph ––- signifying something