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May 27, 2017

how to write a sentence



I was blessed to have been taught Shakespeare's works by a world renowned expert (at least so he described himself). I've never forgotten how he and a colleague determined once and for all that a piece of writing had not been written by Shakespeare: the same word had been used twice in one sentence. Shakespeare, apparently, would never be so shoddy.

I took that information with me into my own writing. I can't say I've adhered to the rule every time, because a more important rule is that writing should breathe naturally, and if you are always ticking off rules you won't necessarily manage that. But it's a good idea to keep at the back of your mind, or to implement during the edit.

I was also taught that writing should balance between being beautiful and invisible. This is my constant struggle! In particular, how to create a gorgeous description without making it clog the senses of the reader? Careful, cool-minded, technical choice of words can help.

Here is an example of how I worked through a sentence in one of my current works-in-progress :

The bells were ringing, gold and old singing, to call Swallowfield to church.

Having two uses of the word to here, and for different grammatical purposes, violates my Shakespeare rule. Although most would not even notice, it gets on my nerves and also creates a double beat in the sentence that spoils the lyricism.

The bells were ringing, gold and old singing, calling Swallowfield to church.

All those -ing words makes for a tangle. There should be a slight pause where the second comma lies, and to pick the sentence up again with yet another -ing word does not allow a natural rhythm.

The bells were ringing, gold and old singing; they called Swallowfield to church.

Technically this is better, but the rhythm still doesn't feel quite right. The semi-colon makes the pause heavier, and there's a temptation to fill it with more words. But that would be a bad idea, for this particular sentence is a servant, rather than a decoration.* Its job is simply to convey information. Here is where "beautiful but invisible" must be remembered. I'm not saying this sentence is beautiful, but that adding more description would only clutter it up without providing any more important information.

(* This sentence originally had two uses of "this" until I changed the first, uncertainly, to "that". I personally think this and that sound awkward in the same sentence. And I don't mind a repetition of certain words that can slip easily into the background, such as and, or, this. I also don't hold blog writing to the same standard as essay writing. However, I changed it incase anyone smirked. No doubt other sentences in this post are equally incorrect, but I don't want to spend all day editing it.)

The bells were ringing, gold and old singing; they called Swallowfield in to church.

Adding "in" made the rhythm feel more flowing to me. Also, it's a subtle piece of themework. Probably too subtle to be noticed - which is good. Ideally, you want a whole lot of these tiny, unnoticed pebbles filling up your path towards meaning, so that a reader intuitively feels what you want them to feel, rather than having to be told.


This is the kind of editing process that is fun to think about, and to teach other people, but as I said above, it isn't always helpful to apply to every sentence in a story. Technically good writing doesn't necessarily equate to heartfelt, lively, captivating writing. (On the other hand, heartfelt writing may be a shambles if you don't meet it with calm consideration - for example, Deep In The Far Away was written a chapter per week, with immediate and unmissable deadlines, so technicality was disposed of in favour of liveliness and a short and long term narrative flow. It perhaps worked as a series, but as a complete novel, it does not stand up well, which is why I have removed it from my catalogue until I am able to revise it properly.) Just because I am sharing this advice doesn't mean that I am any great shakes as a writer! Only that it's helpful information, I think, picked up from a real expert.

2 comments:

  1. i do agree---really good writing is " a whole lot of these tiny, unnoticed pebbles filling up your path towards meaning, so that a reader intuitively feels what you want them to feel, rather than having to be told." that's actually one of the more cogent descriptions of good writing that i've run across...

    and heavens, no, let us not hold our usual blogging to the same exacting editorial and compositional standards as our other writing. i tend to think of blogging as a stream of consciousness or small bursts of discussion---as conversational, somehow---and that is how i like it, mostly.

    writing, like any art, is one part finding the diamonds and many, many parts polishing them and setting them to the best of one's ability... or perhaps i should say, it's like opening many, many oysters, amassing the pearls, drilling and stringing them carefully according to size, color, luster...

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  2. Thank you for this wonderful post, Sarah! I find it fascinating to read how writers approach any aspect of their craft.

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