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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.

Writing that Moves your Reader

Photo courtesy of Mo Riza @Flickr

Yesterday I viewed a video by Leo Babauta, part of a series in the A-List Blogging Bootcamps (www.alistbloggingbootcamps.com) I’m sure you know him, but just in case: he’s also the creator of the www.zenhabits.com and co-founder of www.writetodone.com.

In the video Leo analyzed blogs volunteered by his viewers.
As he commented on the features, I noticed that he keep drilling his viewers on one particular aspect. He advocated taking a look at that first page visitors see when arriving to read a blog—from the visitor’s perspective. And asking, what kind of experience would a user have with that page? Is it cluttered with a bunch of confusing links, and tabs and options? Does it give the user what she is looking for, the latest post, stage center and near the top of the page, without having to search for it and without having to deal with things getting in the way, like pop-ups? Leo was talking about blogs that work, certainly, but what he emphasized over and over applies equally to writing excellence.

Leo knows how to write.
I think all of us who have read him can agree with that. My take on what he said is that he approaches what he writes with concern like this: Is this the type of quality content that will help my readers solve a problem? Fill a need? (my paraphrase of some of his main points).

Writing is communication.
To create content that meets a reader’s need or helps solve a problem, we must write well enough that reader gets the message, clearly and persuasively. Communication occurs when the reader gets it.

When you write keep your reader constantly in mind.
So what is the best way to go about writing?  To communicate well, I must do more than just express myself eloquently.  I must also, as the saying goes, write for my reader.

But what does that mean exactly?
It means that when I write, to write well, I need to at least keep my intended readers constantly in mind. Even better if I can put myself in my reader’s place. Like an actor who “gets into character” to be able to understand the character’s feelings, I need to view my writing as if I were that reader. And ask questions like: “How will she react to what I just wrote.” Or, “If I were her, reading this, would I get it?” And, “At this point in my writing, do I need to add an anecdote, an illustration, a definition to make my meaning clear?”

A vital discipline
Considering my reader is key. Essential. And, If I know my intended reader and understand her, I am much more able to choose words that reach her, persuade her, and touch her where she lives. It makes a big deal of difference if I am writing for fortune 500 executives or for immigrants from Greenland or for a bright nine-year-old young lady residing in Manhattan.

Top-notched writing is persuasive, entertaining, reader-friendly, and packs punch…and it gives readers answers they are looking for.