Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Writing tool #1

Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at Poynter Institute HERE or HERE writes a seriies of fifty tips aimed at improving your writing skills. I'm going post some highlights from his articles here. Refer to the above links for more.

Writing Tip Number 1

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.

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."

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.

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.

I hope this helps a little. It gave me something to think about. Tomorrow, or soon, I will write more. If you want the whole fifty tips, click on the links above.

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  1. Replies
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