4.28.2016

Uncoupling Your Strengths

The composition of sentences follows a rhythm that is individual to every writer. Each one of us has a way we like to tell a story. Some authors prefer to employ short, simple sentences. Others find that they achieve the best results when a subordinate clause or two flows off from the main sentence stem. What I try to achieve as an editor is a mixture of the two. While a complex or compound sentence offers more variety of structure, making the reading experience more textured, that style can also have the unfortunate effect of muddying the impact of simpler components contained within it.

Why is that? Reading is an accretive process. We do not tend to linger on a single sentence. Instead, that sentence leads to another, and it is wrapped up inside a paragraph that leads to another, and on we go through a series of pages before we look up and notice the water glass on the nightstand. The contents of each sentence is flavored by what comes before, and its influence spills onto the sentence after.

A writer can get caught up in this never ceasing flow of words. If he is given naturally to complex sentence structures, he may be loath to simplify his sentences because all the parts do seem to hang together. As someone who is constantly breaking sentences apart and reconstructing them, I know this problem acutely. That’s the way I write myself. Yet I realize that a complex sentence is less forceful. An arabesque structure is fine for description. It tends to undercut the power of action, however. A simple declarative sentence punches home its point. You should not be sacrificing the import of your words in favor of style.

Even worse results can result from the editing process. An author may notice that she has too many simple sentences in a row. Subject-verb, subject-verb: how monotonous. So she throws in an “and,” links up two sentences with a comma, and presto: a more varied sentence rhythm. Or she adds a participial phrase to start the sentence: “Putting her iPhone away in her purse, she pulled the red emergency brake cord.” But I always ask: Why do that? Why muddy a dramatic piece of action like pulling the emergency brake with a common, boring thing we all do? There is no point in augmenting rhythm if you’re sacrificing power.

You might want to pay more attention to what you are writing, each sentence at a time. If you tend to write complex sentences, take a look at the clauses. Could that excellent choice of a participle become an active verb? Would two simple sentences help break up the density of a complex paragraph? That’s the sort of rhythmic question that ends up mattering to the reader.

Exercise: You should avoid the use of the word “and” when the components of your compound sentence are strong as individual sentences. Did you use a good verb? Make it distinctive by letting it command a simple sentence. Did you put in the “and” to link up two pedestrian sentences? Maybe you should spruce up your word choices in each of the sentences. That way you’ll have not one but two sentences that have a little bang in them.

“He can compress the most words into the smallest ideas of any man I ever met.”
—Abraham Lincoln

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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