Art by Alexander Yartsev.
Preface: If you're an experienced writer, you will see me make mistakes and say silly things. Please understand that I'm learning in public and I am not giving writing advice. If you see me make an error, please get in touch, I'd love for you to point out where I'm going wrong as it will save me much wasted time.
If you're wondering why I'm learning to write in public, read this.
Monthly Aim: To learn how to craft great sentences.
Top Learnings This Month
1. Cumulative Sentences
"Say things directly, the subject first and then what the subject is doing. Then trail the modifiers, putting the modifying phrases at the end of the straightforward declarations, expanding and contracting them, adjusting their rhythm as you need to, creating texture, refining with detail." - Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon (originally from Free/Style: A Direct Approach to Writing - Chris Anderson)
Rather than the base clause, I would often start my sentences with the modifying phrases. See. I just did it again. I would now write that sentence as:
I often start my sentences with the modifying phrases, rather than the base clause.
Learning about cumulative sentences has been my focus for this week (15 - 21st Feb 2021). Here are some handwritten notes I took, transcribed (from the book Building Great Sentences).
- Each level of a cumulative sentence can suggest that we need to do more - that we may need to add detail or explanation, another modifying phrase to clarify what we want to say.
- Each new modifying phrase could answer a question that a reader might have about the preceding clause or phrase.
- The cumulative sentence gets its name from the way it accumulates information, gathering new details as it goes, like a snowball that gets bigger and bigger as you roll it through the now.
- To write one, turn the period at the end of one of your sentences into a comma and start adding modifiers. As you add modifying details, you will bring your writing into focus, making your point sharper and sharper, your meaning more and more precise.
"Classes were held in the original buildings, several massive concrete units known collectively as the Cellblock, a bike ride or long walk away from the dorms, and the flow of students back and forth in tribal swarms seemed part of the architecture of the place."
2. Take the advice "omit needless words" with a grain of salt (choose the style that suits your work)
“Omit needless words" is great advice, but not when it gets reduced to the belief that shorter is always better, or that “needless” means any word without which the sentence can still make sense.
When we refer to sentences as being effective or impressive, we refer to what they do, rather than the parts they consist of, and no amount of sophisticated vocabulary or complicated syntax can make a sentence effective or impressive unless that sentence accomplishes the task it was intended to accomplish." - Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon
Omitting needless words is the toolkit many writers follow. It is excellent advice. I follow it too. But, adding words into a sentence can make it read better. You have to be a good writer to make long sentences work. Here is a 32 word sentence from Barry Lopez.
"The movement, over a trail he has traversed many times before, is distinctive, unlike that of a cougar or a bear, yet he appears, if you are watching, sometimes catlike or bearlike."
"The principle is this: When you write, you make a point not by subtracting as though you sharpened a pencil, but by adding. When you put one word after another, your statement should be more precise the more you add. If the result is otherwise, you have added the wrong thing, or you have added more than was needed." - Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon
32 word sentences may not be the best choice for an informative article. If you agree, keep reading.
I'd happily pay hundreds for this guide; it's that good.
Julian's writing is exceptional. Clean, clear and crisp. You can see the pruning that's gone into each sentence.
I include this here to balance out my cumulative sentence and omit needless words points.
There are many different styles of writing. None better than the other.
The key, I think, is to find the style that best suits your material.
On my about page, I was sharing various personal details. I wanted the style to be more chatty, open and honest. I have included words that I could omit to make sentences more rounded and less blunt.
For an informative article, like Julian's, the sharp and clean style works best.
For some fiction, cumulative sentences make work best.
The more I learn, the more I spot different styles and how authors use them to enhance their work.
This is by no means me reviewing writing styles. I'm merely trying to point out my observations (which may be wrong).
Resources Consumed (with a few takeaways)
- "Your story must reflect change over time. A story cannot simply be a series of remarkable events. You must start out as one version of yourself and end as something new. The change can be infinitesimal. It need not reflect an improvement in yourself or your character, but change must happen. Even the worst movies in the world reflect some change in a character over time. So must your story. Stories that fail to reflect change over time are known as anecdotes. Romps. Drinking stories. Vacation stories. They recount humorous, harrowing, and even heartfelt moments from our lives that burned brightly but left no lasting mark on our souls."
- Home for life exercise: "All of this happens because I sit down every evening and ask myself: What is my story from today? What is the thing about today that has made it different from any previous day? Then I write my answer down. That’s it. That’s all I do. If you do it, before long you will have more stories than you could ever imagine."
- "All great stories — regardless of length or depth or tone — tell the story of a five-second moment in a person’s life. Got that? Let me say it again: Every great story ever told is essentially about a five-second moment in the life of a human being, and the purpose of the story is to bring that moment to the greatest clarity possible."
- "The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won’t make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either."
- "A character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it is the basic structure of a good story."
- "A lot of people think a writer has to live in order to write, has to meet people and have a rich series of experiences or his work will become dull. But that is drivel. It’s an excuse a writer uses to take the day off, or the week or the month off for that matter. The thinking is, if we go play Frisbee in the park we’re going to have a thousand words busting out of us when we get back to the house. We’re going to write all kinds of beautiful prose about playing Frisbee. It’s never worked for me. Annie Dillard, who won the Pulitzer while still in her mother’s womb, wrote one of her books in a concrete cell. She says most of what a writer needs to really live they can find in a book."
- "People who live good stories are too busy to write about them. Nobody ever strapped a typewriter to the back of an elephant and wrote a novel while hunting wild game. Nobody except for Hemmingway. But let’s not talk about Hemmingway."
I have included many takeaways from this book in the section at the beginning of this page under "Top Learnings of the Month", but here are few more:
- "The subject is who or what is spoken of or talked about, and the predicate is what is said about the subject. Usually the subject of a sentence will be a noun or noun phrase or pronoun, and the predicate will contain some form of verb."
- "A proposition, which is usually expressed in the form of a sentence, is a statement about reality that can be accepted or rejected. The relationship between propositions and sentences is a little hard to pin down, since a sentence will advance or express one or more propositions, and a proposition will always be in the form of a sentence. The key here is to think of a sentence as being a visible piece of writing, while the propositions it advances are not necessarily written out."
- "The style of our sentences is determined by the ways in which we combine not words, but the propositions those words stand for or refer to."
Barry Lopez - Of Wolves And Men (example of exceptional writing)
- "Everything we have been told about wolves in the past should have been said, I think, with more care, with the preface that it is only a perception in a particular set of circumstances, that in the end it is only an opinion."
- "Imagine a wolf moving through the northern woods. The movement, over a trail he has traversed many times before, is distinctive, unlike that of a cougar or a bear, yet he appears, if you are watching, sometimes catlike or bearlike. It is purposeful, deliberate movement. Occasionally the rhythm is broken by the wolf’s pause to inspect a scent mark, or a move off the trail to paw among stones where a year before he had cached meat."
- "The wolf is three years old. A male. He is of the subspecies occidentalis, and the trees he is moving among are spruce and subalpine fir on the eastern slope of the Rockies in northern Canada. He is light gray; that is, there are more blond and white hairs mixed with gray in the saddle of fur that covers his shoulders and extends down his spine than there are black and brown. But there are silver and even red hairs mixed in, too."
"Whenever you write down an idea, you’re adding a building block to your intellectual arsenal. When people say that writing takes too much time, they don’t realize that you can re-use your best ideas for future projects and presentations. So the more you refine an idea now, the more you can re-use it in the future."
"The Thanksgiving Test of Writing
Before I publish an explanatory article, I like to run it through “The Thanksgiving Test.” If you’re trying to explain something and it wouldn’t be clear to both your high school cousin and your grandmother, it might not be clear enough"
- The Writing Well Handbook by Julian Shapiro (exceptional resource)
- Notes on One Year of Writing Coaching by Sasha Chapin
- What Makes Paul Graham a Great Writer? by Ellen Rhymes
- Several Short Sentences About Writing by Maria Popova
- Imitate, Then Innovate by David Perell
- By simply focusing on quality, you can stand out. People need to hear that because blogging is associated with hundreds of links and ads whenever you open a page. But when I open a blog I like, such as Nat Eliason's or David Perrell's it's very well written work. Finding those is so rare.
- If you're already putting so much effort into creating a blog and writing content, you may as well put the extra effort into making sure that it's high quality.
- If you write an article in six hours, you've already spent six hours writing an article researching, etc. If you put just, a couple more hours into making that article excellent, that couple hours might be the difference between your article going viral or not because it's gone from being in the top 80% to the top 1%.
Here are various sentences I rewrote from my latest essay on creative idea generation. 'A', is my first version of the sentence, 'B' is the second edit, 'C' the third, etc. I'm rewriting 2 or 3 versions of each of my sentences. As I improve, I imagine I'll be constructing more versions of varying lengths.
Quotes & Resources I've Stumbled Across
“Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about.” - W. H. Auden