Monthly Archives: November 2011

Some Vital Keys to the Modern English Sentence

Part I   Let’s hear it for the occasional long sentence!

It’s a beauty
The modern English sentence is beautiful and elegant because it flows they way we think. It is more intuitive than being confined to merely the simple, complex, compound, and compound-complex sentence options of yesteryear. And it’s more powerful.

It’s like a train
The modern English sentence I’m talking about resembles a train. You have the engine at the front, the main clause.

The officer marched into the village.

But you can also add a number of cars following that engine–in fact, quite a good idea.  And these freight cars carry the goods–in many contemporary sentences that’s where much of the meaning is communicated. Now let’s add to the above example sentence:

The officer marched into the village, his AK-47 at the ready pointing forward, his soldiers following close behind, a small but formidable combat unit.

Permit me to diagram that sentence above it so its structure is more obvious:

The officer marched into the village,
              His AK-47 at the ready pointing forward,
                      His soldiers close behind,
                               A small but formidable combat unit.

It also works with Non-fiction:
The above sentence reads like fiction, doesn’t it? Actually, it is fiction. and it’s starting to get a bit long, but is it clear? I think so.

So now let’s look at a non-fiction sentence. I’ll improvise on some of my wiring above:

The modern English sentence is like a train: It has its engine, and it has its freight cars, trailing behind, adding valuable cargo (meaning), often essential actually and clarifying.

Three more brief examples…
This time from Ali Luke’s just-published novel Lycopolis (available in a Kindle edition and soon as a paperback):

Brandon watched him, trying to fathom him out. [Added participial phrase. Kindle edition, location 1392]

Brandon especially enjoyed puzzles, with things to solve. (Added prepositional phrase. Again, Kindle location 1392]

Brandon still disliked being alone in the silence – though he could sleep if he whispered strings of primes into the darkness, backwards and forwards, until the room buzzed with numbers. [The added backwards and forwards is a couple of adverbs, call it an “adverb cluster”; and until the room… is an added adverbial clause. Kindle edition: at location 1353-1354]

(More on the types of additions in my soon-coming blog on this topic, Part II.)

Don’t be too choppy
Modern style–influenced I suspect by copywriting techniques, TV ad video clips addressing a rather short, contemporary attention span–with its frequent very short phrases and even single words punctuated as sentences–can easily get a bit choppy unless we writers take care to include variety in the lengths of our sentences.

The advantages:
Learning this style can be freeing, providing you with formidable weapons for your writing-style arsenal. It can also provide you skill for adding rich texture and meaning into your sentences when you wish to.

Faulkner did it
Faulkner could write sentences that go for a whole page before adding that period. Yet they were in fact simple sentences (by definition, that is not compound or complex or even compound-complex–just a main clause with many add-ons), and all of them perfectly clear and reader-friendly. So could Thomas Wolfe. Even Hemingway wrote sentences like the one I used as an illustration above.

A challenge for you…
Roy Peter Clark in his fine, fairly recent book Writing Tools, 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, says this:

Until the writer tries to master the long sentence, she is not writer at all, for while length makes a bad sentence worse, it can make a good sentence better. (Page 36)

Augment your versatility.
Master the long sentence as well as the modern chopped up sentence (and I’m not knocking sentence fragments punctuated as sentences–I use them myself!).

A couple of Promises…
It takes a bit of practice, but if you learn to write this way (assuming you haven’t already!), I promise you this: it can be a freeing experience. I think you will find that your writing sings at times like poetry. And I also think you will find that  your efforts at writing such sentences can actually generate ideas and enable you to pack those sentences with vivid details and clarifying illustrations, and much much more-at will.

Number 2 Challenge for you…
When you read, be alert for this sentence type (called by some “the loose sentence” in contrast to tight, formal ones). See how often it appears and how effectively it works.

Suggested Further Reading:
Online Resource:

Note– Both of the two following books are out of print and often hard to find but ‘worth their weight in gold.’

Notes Toward A New Rhetoric, 6 Essays for Teachers by Francis Christensen (Harper and Row, 1967)

A Modern Rhetoric by Francis Christensen (Harper and Row, 1976)– Professor Christensen’s master work.

Writing Tools, 50 Essential Strategies for every Writer by Roy Peter Clark ((Little, Brown and Company, 2006)

Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner (Oxford University Press, 3rd Ed., 2009)

100 Ways to Improve your Writing by Gary Provost (Signet, 1985)

Here’s one of the Best Books on Novel Writing and Structure

A review of Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. ISBN 1582979987

This book brings a clarity to the fiction writing process I have not found before. I have read a lot of excellent how-to-write-fiction books, at least over 30 and took thorough notes from most of them. I have also completed two lengthy  courses on fiction writing. Yet I found this text super-helpful.

The “Six Core Competencies” of story writing
That’s what Brooks calls the major topics of his book.  They are:

  • Concept
  • Character
  • Theme
  • Story Structure
  • Scene Execution and
  • Writing Voice

And he covers them all–and more–in only 278 pages. Good news, since most of us writers are already up to our eyebrows in reading material. Yet he does a thorough job of explaining his points.  Plenty clear enough to put them to work in your planning and writing right away.

This isn’t the only book you should read to perfect your fiction-writing skills, but it is really a good place to start!

Clear Guidelines are essential
All of us who write fiction, whether we are beginners or pros, whether we are striving to write the great American novel or just to get published, can benefit form insightful, well-written guidelines on how to go about it.  I, for one, need constant reminders of the many aspects of story-writing I want to keep in mind.  This book provides those guidelines.

A good story idea is not enough
I also need a game plan, a well-thought-out procedure for building that idea into the novel it can become.  I need to consider topics this book covers as I plan and organize my ideas.  Not formulas, but the big picture and what needs to go where and why. Formulas can be rigid. But the principles the author includes are flexible, and rather than inhibiting creativity, they encourage it.

Brooks provides this key information in detail with clear explanations, illustrations from contemporary novels, as well as rather amazing and entertaining analogies.

My favorite portions
The chapters on story structure and theme are among my favorites (although you couldn’t pry any part of the book away from me).

Get published sooner?
Would you like to publish a novel? Would you like to do that in a few years rather than ten or twenty? I cannot guarantee you’ll be published, of course. But assuming you have that potential, I think this book can hasten your victory.

P. S. If you haven’t visited Larry’s blog I recommend you check it out. I’ve read quite a lot of his posts, and each time I came away with something new or something that needed reminding.

Related posts:

Nine things about Powerful writing?

                                           Courtesy  Wesley Fryer @Flickr

1.  Powerful writing gets to us
It hits us where we live. Stirs our emotions. It’s attention-riveting. It’s vivid and to a degree always exciting and intriguing. And it’s convincing. Really good writing is a wake-up call. It prompts us, provokes us to think in new ways and even realize things we always knew, always sensed-or, perhaps never thought of before.

2.  It’s different today.
In previous decades people lived at a more leisurely pace. They would put up with long introductions, long chapters, long paragraphs, and long sentences. Not so much now. The pace of life has accelerated. We’re more in a hurry. In fact, the exception is anyone who dares to take her time.

3. Powerful writing is like magic
Just the right words in just the right places to capture your meaning, your message, your truth. Your take on reality. It hits the target with precision, at least enough to get my ideas clearly across. It’s like the right key strokes to get your computer to do what you want it to do and–with a minimum of fuss.

4.  It’s a pleasure to read
Powerful writing is a pleasure to read. It kindles within us admiration for the writer and a sense that we are getting quality information. From the keyboard of a craftsman, a wordsmith, it’s persuasive. It has impact.

5.  Powerful writing Elevates
It’s like music, really. I can be feeling low, wondering about my projects. Are they worth it? Are they really any good? Should I continue? And I can read something well-written, something encouraging and inspirational and motivating. And soon I feel like a conquering hero.

6.  It’s clear and reader-friendly
Powerful writing doesn’t fight you. It’s not a struggle to read. It flows so well at times that the words disappear into experience as you live the scene, the ideas.

7.  It’s riveting
Powerful writing gets your attention and keeps it. It gives you that sensation, those feelings, the suspense of a thriller. It entices you with questions and has you wondering what’s coming next. You even feel the urge to take a peek ahead.

8.  Powerful Writing is More than Craft
Powerful writing–any good writing–is more than craft of course. It’s something you do intuitively as well as rationally. Right brain and left brain fully engaged, each at least at its proper time and place.  It’s art.

9.  I want to write powerfully…
because I like to write, and I like to do what I do well. It’s worth it, isn’t it? That choice sense of accomplishment. That high when you know you’ve written well. Knowing you’re good at what you do.

What have you written today?

7 Reasons to Write for your Life

1.  Writing can help you Learn.
Writing is one of the best ways to learn information. If you’ve been in college as I have, or even if you worked hard to get good grades in high school, you’ve been faced with having to cram for exams.

One of the tricks that worked well for me was writing the material out by hand. Now at the time, quite a while ago, there were no laptops, not even computers. The closest thing was an IBM Selectric typewriter.  Now I do have a computer, but  I still write by hand at times because I enjoy it.

Back then, writing the information I needed to learn for  exams, and reviewing it several times, helped me get top grades in college.

There’s a saying: If you want to really learn a subject, write a book about it.

2.  Writing can help you become smarter.
Now by saying that, I don’t mean increase your IQ.  I do mean making use of more of your latent intelligence. From the reading I have done, it seems that our innate intelligence is inborn.  Certainly none of us uses all the smarts that are within us waiting to be tapped.

So, to cut to the chase, what can we do to free up more? Well, lots of things really. But the one I want to point to is writing.

Writing is one of the best brain workouts. To Put words on paper that make sense, I have to use both my short and long t erm memory.  I have to think, imagine, even use logic to a degree.

3.  Writing Generates New Ideas and Insights.
Writing often gives my intuition opportunity to reveal new insights to me. Sometimes that means making new connections while doing a mindmap. Or listing topics I want to write about  Many times when I am simply in the midst of putting words down on the page, new ideas do pop up–Sometimes so many I can’t record them all. (Then again, it could be too much coffee.)

4.  Writing can help maintain Mental Health.
I can hear a few of you now: “No, Bill, I want to be nuts, it’s more fun!” It may be, at times.  On the other hand, I think writing can help you stay sane in an often insane world.

For instance, journaling can be an emotional outlet to release negative, stressful feelings. It can also express our joyful experiences. Writing thoughts and experiences in  a journal can be something you do just for you, or it could become the cherished possession of your children or grandchildren.

And in a world where achievement if often hard-won, writing can yield a wholesome feeling achieving something worthwhile.

5.  Writing Enhances Skill.
Plus there’s the added benefit of the practice you get by that writing. Any writing helps to a degree in gaining more fluency with your words.

So we have that 10,000 glass ceiling. Or 10 years readying, studying, writing to become a successful expert at it.

Even the tiniest bit of writing moves us in that direction.

6.  Writing is versatile.
When I graduated college as an English major and was working on a novel, I needed to find work. I applied for a local government position since it was available.  I soon found out that the application process was far more involved  than I anticipated.

And guess what: A key portion of the testing involved writing. I had to write a lengthy report. It turned out that writing skill was one of the main job requirements. To this day I figure my writing skill, such as it was then, helped me get that job–that turned into a career.

Writing skill helps in many areas of our lives. It can help us talk better and sound employable.  And that couldn’t hurt.

7.  Writing is enjoyable.
I know I can’t speak for you, but I enjoy writing. There’s something about coming up with the right words, exciting words, fun words and then painting them with effective phrases and sentences that gets me going. Call it a sense of satisfaction or the intimation that I might make a difference.

That satisfaction is not only real, it is motivating too.

Write on!

Related articles:

The Best Book on Revising Fiction-Period

Courtesy Cohdra

Best-selling author James Scott Bell has written a gem of a book with his Write Great Fiction: Revision & Self-Editing, Techniques for transforming your first draft into a finished novel. In fact, it’s like a one-volume manual for fiction writing.

A Comprehensive Overview with a lot of Details
From the introduction: “Beginning writers will therefore find this an essential overview of the craft of novel-length fiction.” But Bell is also careful to admit that entire books have been written on the subjects he covered. So this is not an exhaustive treatment of the know-how necessary to write a competent novel. You should read other books too. Nevertheless, Bell does an admirable job of packing this book with key advice, over and over again.

Some books meander all over the grid before getting specific about what to look at, what to do, and how to do it. So what’s good about this book? In a word, everything! It’s readable and quickly zeros-in on the many targeted techniques. And its instruction is well-organized, systematic, and easy to follow. In fact, it’s like a training manual for novelists.

Still impressed
I’m re-reading it. When I first read it a year and a half ago, I was impressed with its rich content and sound advice.

Good value for your money, and then some…
The introduction “On Becoming a Writer” and the “The Ultimate Revision checklist” near the end of the book are easily worth the price of the book alone. But there is a wealth of information on the pages between–detailed by a writer who has been in the trenches, fighting hard for years to win the wisdom he shares.

It’s divided into two main parts.
Part One: Self- Editing goes over the major aspects of fiction writing, like characters, plot & structure, point of view, scenes, dialogue, show vs. tell, and so on. Each chapter is a jewel that covers key techniques for the novelist and all or certainly nearly all the essential need-to-know points. Most chapters have helpful exercises at the end, and some have more than one exercise.

Part Two: Revision prepares you the reader for tackling serious revision after that first draft has cooled off sufficiently. Topics include: “A Philosophy of Revision,” “Before Your Revise” and “The First Read-through.” Then comes one of the most useful sections of this book…

“The Ultimate Revision Checklist”
This brilliant 38-page  section is really, to me, the heart of the book. It contains spot-on and penetrating questions the novelist can profitably ask herself as she prepares for and goes about re-writing. These questions are grouped, each in its own section with titles like Character, Plot, The Opening, Middles, Endings, Voice, Style & Point of View, Setting, Dialogue Theme, The Polish.

A Few of the extras…
Throughout there are pithy quotes from well-known, successful, published authors that underscore the many points. Bell even included answers to the exercise at the end of several of the chapters.

It’s a Tough Job but…
Revising the first, or second, or third draft can be tough. The key is to identify those things that need fixing, ways to make your novel better. Bell provides not only a workable plan but also the tools to do just that.

From page 215: “The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon.”  –Robert Cormier.

Highly recommended.

Other helpful books on revising fiction:
1. Immediate Fiction, A Complete Writing Course by Jerry Cleaver.
2. The Elements of Fiction Writing: Revision, How to find and fix what isn’t working in your story and strengthen what is to build compelling, successful fiction by Kit Reed (available used).
3. The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham
4. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, How to edit yourself into print by Renni Browne and Dave King.

The Best Book on Revision, Period


If you’re up early to get that post fixed so that it’s ready to publish, but you can’t seem to get the wording quite right.  Here’s a book that can help:

Getting the Words Right: How to Revise, Edit & Rewrite by Theodore A. Rees Cheney.

There are a number books on writing well  that include the topic of revision among others that I find helpful.  Several of them focus on fiction-writing.

Why then this book? Because Cheney gets down into the word-for-word, phrase-by-phrase, sentence-after-sentence trenches.  His focus is not on fiction-writing techniques  but on all writing and, as his title implies, on “getting the words right.”

Here are a few choice quotes:

“Diction lies at the heart of style.”

“A process central to writing—careful thought”

“Are the words together that belong together?”

The book lives up to its title. Plus, I think Cheney included just about every revision and rewriting technique in existence for improving my writing. So it’s very useful to me for recalling all the things I can do when editing. and also for reminding me of some  techniques I can profitably use more often.

I can thumb my way through my thoroughly-underlined and highlighted copy of this book and more often than not discover what is wrong with that piece I’m working on.

Theodore Cheney was an interesting guy.

At 17 he traveled to the Antarctic with Admiral Byrd, the pioneering American aviator and polar explorer,  and later returned on excursions of his own to polar regions. He earned degrees in geology and geography. He published books and earned an MA in communication. He held a position as a senior scientist at a “think tank.” And he conducted writer workshops and was the director of the Writing Concentration Program at Fairfield University.

This book has come out in a newer edition: Getting the Words Right: 39 Ways to Improve your Writing. I prefer the older version, previous title above.  Both are available at online bookstores.

Mr. Cheney also wrote Creative Non-fiction Writing that details how a writer can use fiction devices to add drama and vividness to her non-fiction work.

Highly recommended

What books on writing have you found helpful, including those that cover revision? Please feel free to comment and share.

7 Ways you can Learn to Write Better–Guaranteed

Courtesy Cruiznbye @FLickr

1. Climb that mountain: write something every day.
I know, I know, you’ve  heard this before. But are you doing it? It’s a super-key to developing writing skill.

Artists  learn to draw incredibly well  by carrying a sketchpad with them and drawing at every opportunity. Carry paper and pen or at least a digital audio recorder with you always. Besides, you never know when that fantastic idea will pop into your brain without warning.

To get good at anything, do it a lot. If you miss a day, no big deal. But try not to miss too many.

2. Read the best books on writing.
You don’t have to struggle all alone and get discouraged. Learn from successful writers who have a history of struggling themselves—and winning. What they teach you can accelerate your progress.

There are many excellent books on writing—for writers on every level. Read them and do any available exercises:

Need help with grammar? There’s a free guide here:  Scroll down and find where you can subscribe. Look for the photo of the book Basic English Grammar, sign up and download it. You should be subscribed to emails from this website and reading them daily anyway.

Want to get better at revising your first drafts? Getting the Word Right, How to Revise, Edit & Rewrite by Theodore A. Rees Cheney is one of the best. Probably the best.

Been writing a while but still feel a need to improve? My favorite is Beyond Style: Mastering the Finer Points of Writing by Gary Provost. Or, his 100 ways to Improve your Writing features key help.

Or, simply go to one of the major online bookstores, do a search for “writing” or “better writing” and read the reviews to help you choose.

3. Realize you don’t need to worry about talent.
It’s overrated anyway. What does that word “talent” mean really? Most of the time it’s an inadequate explanation why some people are better than others at doing things like drawing or painting or dancing or poetry or ice-skating.

Michelangelo once said: “If people knew how hard I worked to achieve my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful after all.”

What you need is a desire to write well that is strong enough to motivate you to stick with it. What you need is to fill pages with words (or your hard-drive’s memory).

And listen to the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “”Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it.”

4. Read.
Reading, second to writing every day, is the most important training you can get. Read especially the writers who write the way you’d like to—excellent advice from Ray Bradbury, the celebrated author of stories that are pure magic (Zen in the Art of Writing). Read writers you admire: novelists, poets, copywriters, technical writers. Good writing is always good to read.

You’re an artist, and words are your medium. The more your brain processes them, the better—and the more fluent you become.

5. Get crazy-occasionally.
By “occasionally” I mean in your first attempt to write a piece. Your first draft. Again, Ray Bradbury makes a good point. He includes all the crazy stuff he comes up with, the wild ideas when he writes that first version. True, he will edit out a lot of them later—you always can—but not necessarily all of them. A lot of your best ideas will come to you when you write in a hurry, in an enthusiastic rush. But many of them can all-too-easily be slaughtered by  giving your inner critique permission too soon in the game.

Writing is work, but it should be fun too whenever possible. Be childlike in those early attempts. Then later, be a tad more sensible when editing.

6. Be more like a human and less like a professor.
The style today is more conversational. That doesn’t mean your writing should be chatty or filled with slang or street language. You will likely find yourself writing more formally on occasion. But it does mean we writers are using a style that is more like we talk.

Try this key technique: The next time you are struggling with a sentence or two, pretend you’re talking a friend. Say it out loud if you need to and write down your words.

7. And don’t quit.
I can’t guarantee how good of a writer you will eventually become. But I can guarantee if you quit trying to improve, you won’t.  At least not a lot. But if you follow the advice in this post, you will improve.

If you like to write, whether its blog posts, poetry, stories, love-letters or a manual for using Microsoft Word, then look to your future. Imagine what it would be like to be so good that you can compose words that move people to take action, that make them laugh, and that give them hope.

And go for it!