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Write Powerfully Like the Pros

lEARN VERSATILE PHRASES YOU CAN ADD into sentences making them both reader-friendly and a pleasure to read.

PART TWO IN THE “Vital Keys to the Modern English Sentence” SERIES

Read this sentence out loud, if you will…

In the morning we went out into a new world, a glistening crystal and white world, each skeleton tree, each leafless bush, even the heavy, drooping power lines sheathed in icy crystal.
           (from Notes Toward A New rhetoric  by Francis Christensen, page 14)
Lovely, isn’t it?  It’s one of my all time favorite sentences.  I can just see the beauty and feel cold. It’s a pleasure to read, so simple and clear.
The Loose Sentence
In books on grammar and rhetoric, that example sentence above is called a loose sentence. It’s loose because  those phrases added on after the main clause are not locked on. They are more like a dance than a military march.
AKA Cumulative Sentence
Savvy writing treachers also call this type of sentence a cumulative sentence because it grows by addition.
Start with addition not subtraction
Writing is not just subtraction as in cutting out unnecessary words and sentences when you edit.  Editing is super-important.  But first you must put words, clauses, phrases, sentences and paragraphs down on the page- so that you have something to work with.
Freight cars heavy with meaning
In my previous post on the modern English sentence (http://keystowriting.com/2011/11/),  I pointed out that it’s like a train.  The main clause is the engine, and the freight cars that follow are loaded with specific meaning.  But those freight cars can show up in a considerable variety.
So stay with me while I get slightly more technical and describe below some of those versatile  phrases…

I’ll keep my examples short so that we can focus on each individual add-on.

The most common is perhaps the participle phrase

Judy smiled enchantingly, twisting her ponytail with her fingers.

Above, Ttisting is a present participle. Add ing to the verb twist, and you have a  participle.

Notice how  twisting her ponytail with her fingers adds descriptive detail to the words smiled and enchantingly.  I can better picture Judy in my mind.

Nouns work well too

Judy’s smile was enchanting, an invitation to dance.

The noun invitation  and the words included next to it also describe what Joan’s smile was like.  But the phrase an invitation to dance is built around the noun invitation.  Phrases built on nouns and frequent in both fiction and nonfiction writings.

Nominative Absolutes are “people” too
This is a verbal phrase, usually containing a participle, but this time with a subject.  Two examples…

She smiled, her palms turned upward in resignation. (past participle)

She smiled, her palms turning upward in resignation. (present participle)

A nominative absolute, in spite of its formidable title, is a useful writing device.  It’s just like the participle phrase I described above with one exception: it has a subject.

In both examples above, her palms is the subject of the phrase.  Her palms is the subject, and turned/turning are participles. The nominative absolute itself is almost, but definitely not quite, a clause or sentence. I could have written:

She smiled. Then she turned her palms upward…

That would have been two sentences. Two main clauses. Nominative absolutes are most common in fiction but can be effective in nonfiction too.

Prepositional Phrases are common too
Very frequent in writing. When they become elaborate, it is often best to punctuate them with commas, or maybe even occasionally dashes.

A.  He ran, punching the air with his fists, down the dirt trail and around a bend, soon out of sight.

The main clause is, of course, He ran. As underlined above, there are three prepositional phrases, and the last is introduced by the adverb soon.

(Notice, too, the vivid participial phrase punching the air with his fists.)

I could have included all that information in separate and small sentences:

B.  He ran full out. His fists punched the air. He dashed down the dirt trail. Soon he was around a bend.  And then he was out of sight.

This second version is not necessarily bad. But do you see how more efficient and perhaps effective too the original version A above is?

Phrases built on Adverbs

She smiled shyly and enticingly.

The two adverbs above add to what the author meant by smiled.

Phrases built on Adjectives

Bald Mountain looked formidable, tall and steep.

Most but not all
These are the most of  common add-ons. Certainly there are others.

But for  now compare the two following segments.

1. He was tired. Exhausted really. His sat slumped in the chair. His arms hung limply down at the sides. They were pale white and dead-looking.

2. He was tired, exausted really, slumped in his chair, his hands hanging limply at the sides, pale-white and looking dead.

Which is better?
Is either a bad piece of writing? Well, I hope not since I wrote them! But is number 1 above better than number 2? Not necessarily. It depends on a number of things but primarily the effect you want to create with your writing.

Perhaps the best point to make here is that I think that it’s a good idea to know  your options.  Better yet: practice them so that they come readily to mind when you’re writing.

Now let’s re-visit that first example sentence I started with above, this time naming the phrases:

In the morning we went out into a new world (main clause),

a glistening crystal and white world (noun phrase built on world),

each skeleton tree (noun phrase),

each leafless bush (noun phrase),

even the heavy, drooping power lines sheathed in icy crystal (nominative absolute built on the past participle sheathed)

Suggested Exercises
When you read, be alert for these types of additions.  Check how well they work.  Also, if you will practice this modern sentence, with its various possible additions, you will soon discover how versatile and effective they can be.

The modern English sentence makes for some powerful writing.

The Best Book on Revision, Period

Courtesy http://www.sxc.hu

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.

Roget’s Super Thesaurus really is Super–and Smart

If you do a lot of writing

…you probably already have a dictionary and a thesaurus, maybe more than one of each.

I love a thesaurus, especially a good one.  This one is much better than good.

And  I like it in book form so that I can look up words in it without having to switch screens on my computer monitor.   I like the ease of flipping pages as opposed to searching on my Kindle or PC.

 So what’s so super about it?  Well…

It’s alphabetically arranged.

It has more than 400,000 synonyms and antonyms.

It has a reverse dictionary: You can look up things you know about but can remember the name of.

It includes sample sentences and clarifying quotes.

From the back cover of the paperback edition: “a must-have for every writer’s desk” with “more features than any other word reference” and “The next time that elusive, just-right word or phrase is on the tip of your tongue, reach for Roget’s Super Thesaurus.”  (Not bad copy.)

It even capitalizes words that should be in your vocabulary.

But you know what  I especially like?  It includes what it calls “minor words” as alphabetized main entries.  You know,  words that are common, colloquial, conversational, street language, casual, vernacular, chatty, homey, simple  and often spicy.  Informal words as well as the usual, formal terms.

Words like these: 

  •  con
  • dressing-down
  • fink
  • firestorm
  • flimflam
  • mind-boggling
  • on edge
  • player
  • rickety
  • tinhorn and
  • sponge (verb form: mooch, beg, cadge, bum, freeload, scrounge).

Now that I have it and use it daily, I wouldn’t be without it.  It’s one of the reference books for  writing smart. Highly recommended.

Roget’s Super Thesaurus, 4th Edition, by Mark McCutcheon, Writer’s Digest Books, 2010, ISBN 978-1-58297-999-1 (paperback).

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