WELCOME, WRITERS

If you've come to this blog, you're probably already a competent writer--or well on your way to becoming one. After all, the surest sign of a good writer is an eagerness to become an even better writer. Writing teachers are also welcome here.

This blog will offer advice on style, grammar, even such mundane matters as punctuation. Good writing is an art, yes, but it is also a craft, like quilting or carpentry or car repair. That means the ability to write is more than just an inborn talent; it is also a skill that can be learned.

Over the years, folks have paid me a lot of money for my writing and for my advice about writing. I've been a senior editor at the New York Times Magazine Group, and I've published hundreds of magazine articles myself.
I've taught writing at several universities—most recently Virginia Tech. Corporations like FedEx have hired me to teach their executives how to write better. (Note to teachers: Many of my blog posts originated as lesson plans. Feel free to use them in your own classes.)

Now retired from full-time work, I still teach writing seminars, for free, to worthy nonprofits.

Given all this, I suppose I'm qualified to offer some suggestions about the subject of writing. Much of what I say here has been said in other places--especially in fine books like Strunk and White's The Elements of Style and Donald Hall's Writing Well. You should read those books. Meanwhile, I hope you find some of the advice on this blog useful.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

DAISY, DAISY: A Parable for Writers

A field of daisies? No: a daisy and a daisy and a daisy . . . .

      An Old Man and A Boy are standing in a field of flowers. The Old Man points to the field and says to The Boy, "Tell me, what do you see?"
     The Boy answers, "Master, I see a field of flowers."
     "Ah," says The Old Man. "Now kneel and look again. What do you see?"
     The Boy kneels and says, "Master, I see some daisies."
     "Ah," says The Old Man. "Now lie on your stomach and look again. What do you see?"
     The Boy lies on his stomach and says, "Master, I see two tall daisies."
     "Ah," says The Old Man. "Look more closely. What do you see?"
     The Boy says, "Master, I see a 12-inch-tall daisy with three flowers that have yellow centers, one flower with a bee on it, and another with a broken stem. The leaves are green."
     "Yes," says The Old Man. "Now look beside it. What do you see?"
     The Boy says, "Master, I see a 22-inch-tall daisy with four yellow-centered flowers, one with two ants on the petals. The petals are white, but the leaves are brown and--"
     "Enough," says The Old Man. "Stand up."
     The Boy stands up.
     The Old Man points to the field. "Now what do you see?" he asks.
     "Ah, master," says The Boy. "I see a daisy and a daisy and a daisy and--"
     "Yes," says The Old Man.
     "--and a daisy," says The Boy, as they walk away, "and a daisy . . ."
 _____________

     The preceding is an ancient parable that I recently made up. I invented it to illustrate an essential principle of good prose. For me that principle has recently gone beyond mere aesthetic suggestion and has entered the realm of Moral Imperative. The principle is this:
Be specific. Generalities lie. There is no such thing as a field of daisies. There is only a daisy and a daisy and a daisy. . . .


Good writers see specific daisies.

     "Be specific" is one of the two principles by which every great writer, from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Salinger, has lived. (The other principle is "Be concrete," which deserves an essay of its own.)
     What does "Be specific" mean? It means, don't say "stomach medicine" if you mean "Maalox"; don't say "employee" if you mean "pimply bank teller"; and don't say "bodily substance" if you mean "belly button lint" or "ear wax." It means recognizing that generalities are merely a convenient, mendacious shorthand designed to prepare the way for specific examples--specifically for at least three specific examples, because three is, for the human mind, a magic number. Here are three specific examples of what I'm talking about:

  • Generality: "A sweet nothing works best when it combines understatement with a figure of speech." Specifics: "Your doe-brown eyes are neither unbeautiful nor unbewitching. Your skin is somewhat smooth and somewhat sweet--like a ripe nectarine. You are only slightly more lovely than a mountain sunrise."
  • Generality: "Psychologists are neurotic." Specifics: "My last psychologist weighed 420 pounds and held her sessions in a kitchen. The one before that couldn't talk unless he was petting a cat. The one before that wore Groucho Marx glasses and called it 'role-playing.'"
  • Generality: "People who receive radio stations through their teeth should feel blessed." Specifics: "To receive The Weekly Top 40 will make you young. To receive Beethoven will make you profound. To receive All Things Considered will make you wise beyond all other mortal men."

"Pickle" is "food" with a face.

     Specifics, I tell my students, are more real, more vivid, more informative, more honest, and certainly more entertaining than generalities. "Pickle" is "food" with a face. "Sweatsock" is "footwear" with a smell. "Rolex" is "time-piece" with cachet. A good writer must thus develop an eye for specific detail. He must, for example, learn the names of plants and animals. Many a hiker has blistered because he didn't know witch hazel from wisteria, many a cobra has bit the dust because he didn't know a mouse from a mongoose--and many a novelist has blistered and bit the dust for the same reasons.
     Generalities, however, are seductive. It is easier to hold one field of flowers in your head than a million individual daisies. Besides, specifics can be dangerous. In Jorge Luis Borges' marvelous short story "Funes, the Memorious," the title character is a young boy who, as the result of an accident, sees and remembers every single detail of his life, right down to "every leaf on every tree of every wood." In the end, Borges tells us, the boy dies--of congestion.


Gods—and great writers—see, not flocks, but individuals.

     So perhaps you can't see everything in particular. Perhaps that is only for a god to do, if you believe in gods. In fact, it is perhaps what makes a god a god--that he can actually pay attention to each individual sparrow that falls, not to mention each individual human being who is throwing up or chewing his nails. A god doesn't think in terms of flocks or demographics--he thinks in terms of a red cardinal with a black brow and a broken wing under a tree in Central Park or a black child with a white smile and a runaway red wagon in Brooklyn Heights. Maybe that's how a god can manage to love everything, and why he doesn't send form letters in answer to prayers.
     And that's where the Moral Imperative comes in. I think it is morally necessary that we resist the seduction of generalizations, not just as writers but as human beings. It is necessary if we are to, if not love, at least like each other. To embrace specifics, with all their warts and whiskers, is to see through prejudice with unclouded eyes and to engage the world with sympathy. In fact, in the face of specifics, isms--the Frankenstein creations of generality--wither and die. Sexism collapses before Jane Earthmother, who, widowed and plump, has raised nine laughing children all by herself on an Iowa farm. Racism vanishes before Ernest Workman, who, black and underpaid, labors at three jobs in Compton to pay for his wife's kidney dialysis and his little girl's braces. Ageism melts before your very own grandmother and grandfather.
     Exceptions to the rule, you say? There are no rules. There are only exceptions.


END
 

Ageism melts in the face of a specific old cat and a specific grandmother. 
(This is my late mother with her late cat Chow-Chow.)
 
 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

WASTE NOT YOUR WORDS: How to achieve conciseness

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Melville's whale of a book (above) is just as concise as                                                                                             Hemingway's sleek marlin of a novella (below).

Conciseness is a principal virtue of good writing.

Let me be clear: “Conciseness” does not mean simply “fewer words.” If that were the case, The Old Man and the Sea would be considered more “concise” than Moby Dick, and all short stories would be considered more “concise” than all novels. On the contrary: A Shakespearean sonnet is not more “concise” than an epic poem like Paradise Lost—it is simply shorter, and that has nothing to do with conciseness. (Both Shakespeare and Milton, by the way, are masters of conciseness. Consider: “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” [from Macbeth]. “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven” [from Paradise Lost]. Has more ever been said in fewer words?)

Nor does “conciseness” refer to the length of sentences. One of the deep-rooted, time-stretching sentences of William Faulkner or one of the multi-layered, massively qualified, intricately knotted sentences of Henry James is just as likely to be effectively concise as one of Ernest Hemingway’s tight-knit phrasings.

No, “conciseness” simply means the virtue of conveying the most information with the fewest words, the length of the document (or the sentence) notwithstanding. Conciseness comes down to this: Don’t waste words. For a writer, that’s worse than wasting water.

That said, here are fifteen ways to help you say more with fewer words:


1. Remove implied redundancies.

Wordy: “The young girl screamed loudly as she sat on the soft fluffy dog in the white snow.”
Better: “The girl screamed as she sat on the fluffy dog in the snow.”

When you take out “young,” “loudly,” “soft,” and “white,” you’ve lost no information. A girl is by implication young. A scream is by implication loud. (If it’s a soft scream, then the adjective “soft” should be added.) Can a fluffy dog be anything else but soft? No. Is all snow white? No. But if you simply say “snow,” the reader will see white.


2. When possible, replace adverbial words and phrases by using one well-chosen base word.

Wordy: “walked with great confidence
Better: “strode” or “marched”

Wordy:extremely large”
Better: “huge” or “enormous” or “gigantic”

Wordy: “spoke under her breath
Better: “whispered” or “mumbled” or “murmured”


3. Most of the time, use active-voice verbs. 

Wordy: “The words were spoken by my uncle.”
Better: “My uncle spoke the words.”

Wordy: “The ducks were shot by Norm.”
Better: “Norm shot the ducks.”

(Note: The passive voice has its place. For more on the passive voice, see this link: http://writeyourbest.blogspot.com/2011/02/cowards-cop-out-abuse-of-passive-voice.html .)


4. Avoid noun-based phrases where a single strong verb will do.

Wordy: “I have hopes that I will pass the test,”
Better: “I hope I will pass the test.”

Wordy: “We made a decision to climb the mountain”
Better: “We decided to climb the mountain.”

Wordy: “She came to the conclusion that she would apply only to state schools”
Better: “She opted to apply only to state schools.”

5. Avoid most intensifiers. These include words like “very,” “really,” and “extremely.”

Wordy: “I am very eager to take on really difficult subjects in the extremely challenging college curriculum.”
Better: “I am eager to take on difficult subjects in the challenging college curriculum.”

The intensifiers add nothing to the original sentence and in fact make it seem that the student is trying really very extremely too hard.

6. Avoid most deintensifiers. These include words like “rather,” “somewhat,” and “quite.”

Wordy: “I am rather eager to take on the somewhat difficult subjects in the quite challenging college curriculum.”
Better: “I am eager to take on difficult subjects in the challenging college curriculum.”

The deintensifiers add nothing to the original sentence and in fact make the writer sound rather somewhat quite wishy-washy.

7. Avoid pompous phrasing.

Wordy: “at this point in time”
Better: “now” or “today”

Wordy: “He engaged in the utilization of the chain saw.”
Better: “He used the chain saw.”
A worker engaged in the utilization of a chain saw?

8. Consider changing “there are” and “it is” phrasing.

Wordy: “There are many people who prefer bagels to donuts.”
Better:  “Many people prefer bagels to donuts.”

Wordy: “It is often the case that college seniors get careless about doing their schoolwork.”
Better: “College seniors often neglect their schoolwork.”

(Note that I’ve also changed the long-winded phrase “get careless about doing” with the crisp verb “neglect,” which contains all the same information. Well-chosen verbs are at the heart of good, concise writing. Note also that I say consider changing "there are" and "it is" constructions. That doesn't mean get rid of all of them. They have their place.)

9. Put statements in positive form.

Wordy: “It was not uncommon for Ted to talk too much.”
Better: “Ted often talked too much.”

Wordy: “None of the dogs in the room appeared sick or injured.”
Better: “All the dogs in the room appeared healthy.”

Wordy: “I hardly ever saw Jane when she was not drunk.”
Better: “I rarely saw Jane sober.”

(Like most rules, this can be broken in certain circumstances. For more on this subject, see this link: http://writeyourbest.blogspot.com/2011/03/dont-tie-yourself-in-nots.html . I first learned this advice from the wonderful book The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, which you should read tomorrow.)

10. Avoid empty “all-purpose” nouns.

Wordy: “The dining situation in the dorms is inefficient.”
Better: “Dorm dining is inefficient.” 

Wordy: “Drinking water is a factor in preventing dehydration.”
Better: “Drinking water prevents dehydration.”

Wordy: “Grades are a consideration to be an issue in college admission decisions.”
Better: “Grades influence college admission decisions.”

11. Avoid long imprecise phrases where a single precise word will do.

Wordy: “wooden interdental stimulators”
Better: “toothpicks”

Wordy: “electronically-regulated traffic-control mechanisms”
Better: “stoplights”

(Note: These two wordy examples come from real government documents. For more examples of bad writing, see this link: http://writeyourbest.blogspot.com/2011/01/can-you-translate-this-16-real-examples.html .)
An electronically-regulated traffic-control mechanism?

12. Avoid redundant categories.

Wordy: “The campus is a place where people feel safe.”
Better: “People feel safe on campus.”

Wordy: “My mother is a person who cares about others,”
Better: “My mother cares about others.”

Wordy: “Waitressing is a job that teaches many life skills.”
Better: “Waitressing teaches many life skills.”

13. Avoid redundant pairs.

Wordy: “our goals and objectives”
Better: just “our goals” or just “our objectives”

Wordy: “your hopes and dreams”
Better: just “your hopes” or just “your dreams”

14. Tighten too-loose sentences.

Wordy: “There I was, walking in the woods, and it was 6 a.m. in the morning, and the sun was just above the horizon in the east when I saw twelve crows and they were flying low above the wheat field.”
Better: “Walking in the woods at 6 a.m., the sun just above the horizon, I saw twelve crows flying low above the wheat field.”

15. Subordinate or reduce minor ideas into clauses and phrases instead of giving them their own sentences.

Wordy: “The dog was brown. It was also large. It came at me slowly. It was snarling. The wind was rising. Rain could be seen in the east, where there were hills. I began to run.”

Better: “The large brown dog crept toward me, snarling. The wind was rising, and I could see rain in the eastern hills. I began to run.”

(Note: There are other good ways to merge these ideas into sentences. How you do it depends on the effect you wish to achieve.)

Note that in all this advice, I don’t recommend that you save words by removing ideas, information, examples, or concrete images from your writing. Indeed, they are the substance of good writing. When you save words by using such tactics as I’ve listed here, you have room for even more substance.

I must add, here at the end, a mild caveat: There may be times when, for stylistic reasons (rhythm, sentence variation, a shift of emphasis, and so on), the sentence that best serves your needs contains more words than you might require for purely informational purposes. As with any writing advice, the command to be concise must be weighed against the other demands of good writing.

# # #

Monday, September 17, 2012

HOW TO WRITE A COLLEGE APPLICATION ESSAY: One man's advice

Chocolate milk: A perfectly good subject for an essay.
These days, most colleges require that your application essay be no more than 500 words. In that essay, colleges expect you to reveal your writing ability and, just as important, the real You, with a capital Y. Who are You? What makes You tick? What are Your hopes, expectations, fears, joys, tastes, desires, foibles, sins, and virtues? That’s a lot to expect of 500 words.

Of course, you can’t say everything about yourself in 500 words. Forget that list two sentences ago; you can’t fit all that in 500 words. You must narrow the focus of your essay. So what do you write?

Some experts suggest that you start your application essay with a brief personal story and then draw a “moral” from it that expresses your values. There’s nothing wrong with that advice, but if I were a college admissions officer, I’d be sick by now of essays that begin with a touching little tale about a wise grandfather, a handicapped sibling, or a South American orphan the applicant met on a summer good-works trip. I’d prefer hearing about why you still drink only chocolate milk at the age of 17, or how Bonnie Sue McKay broke your heart at the age of twelve (and how you got over it by learning to quilt), or why table tennis is your favorite sport, or how you, with your tin ear, wept the first time you heard Schumann’s Piano Concerto.

Prefer rugby to table tennis? Fine. Go with that.

If I’m your college admissions officer, forget “touching.” Give me honest and accurate, instead. Give me “tough” before “touching.” Give me clear observations—in your own words, please, not stock phrases. Give me concrete images: a chocolate milk stain on a white hospital gown, a quilting needle stuck in your index finger, a cracked ping-pong ball behind the basement furnace, a scratchy old recording coming out of a friend’s iPod. Give me wit, if you’ve got it, but don’t strain for something that doesn’t come naturally. Give me honest feeling, not prepackaged, Hallmark-card, tell-’em-what-they-want-to hear mush. If you now hate quilting and prefer rugby to table tennis, fine, write that.

If I’m your college admissions officer, think hard about chocolate milk or Bonnie Sue or table tennis or Schumann, and answer me this question, as accurately and honestly as you can: Why is this important to you? If you think you know the answer to that question before you start writing, then you don’t know what writing is. Writing—through thinking and brainstorming and free-writing and revising and revising—is a way of searching for the answers to such a question and then writing down those answers as accurately as you can. A good essay would surprise the you you were before you began to write it.

I’m not a college admissions officer, but if I were, I’d say this: The subject of your essay doesn’t matter. It simply needs to be well written and about something you—you, not everybody else, and certainly not some imaginary admissions officer—honestly do care about. Think of this not as an exercise designed to impress colleges, but as a piece of writing as sincere as a love letter. Even if it’s about chocolate milk.

Like lap blankets? A fine subject for an essay.

Hmmm. All this sounds very solemn. Your college application essay does not need to be solemn. It does not need to be profound. It does not need to be heart-warming or tragic or full of marvels. It can be funny or quirky. It can be plain and simple. (I often prefer plain and simple.) It can be about something or someone you like, not necessarily something or someone you love. In other words, it can be about lap blankets or Roger Federer, not necessarily about environmental awareness or your grandfather. I once was paid good money for a little essay about the contents of my wallet. I believe that essay would have got me admitted to Harvard.

All this means your college application essay can be written only by you. Your mother can’t write it. Your guidance counselor can’t write it. That friend of the family who’s a writing teacher can’t write it. When my son applied to college, I refused to help him with his essay. I’m a professional writer and college writing teacher; I knew I could make his essay better. But I couldn’t make it his. If colleges wanted to know what he had to say and how he said it, then the work had to be his. Otherwise, he was applying under false pretenses. (Who knows, you may want to write something you don’t want to show your mother or your guidance counselor. Do you really want them to know about your crush on Bonnie Sue or your fear of white milk?)

I know that many college applicants get help—some of them get lots of help—on their application essays. Maybe I shouldn’t judge them. But I do. I think they’re cheating just a bit. Your essay needs to be your essay.

And of course it needs to be no more than 500 words. Why? Because that’s the rule, and even if it’s a narrow and arbitrary rule, you need to prove you can color inside the lines. In my next post to this site,I give you some advice about how to write concisely and make the most of those, or any other, 500 words.

This essay first appeared on the website smartcollegevisit.com .


Only five-hundred words? Yes, you've got to color inside the lines.



 

Monday, January 2, 2012

HOW TO WRITE A LETTER TO STEVEN SPIELBERG





Steven Spielberg (above) and Mark Twain (below) would make a good team.

 
I just wrote a letter to Steven Spielberg, the movie director. This process raised some interesting questions about writing. Here’s the final version of my letter.

Ed Weathers
1849 St. Andrews Circle
Blacksburg, VA 24060
Tel.: 540-961-4280


January 2, 2012

Steven Spielberg
DreamWorks SKG
100 Universal City Plaza, Bldg 10
Universal City, CA 91608, USA

Dear Mr. Spielberg:

I’m writing to suggest, if you haven’t already suggested it to yourself, that you consider making a movie of Huckleberry Finn that does justice to the novel—the definitive film version of a great American story.

Ernest Hemingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Strangely, there has never been a movie version of Huckleberry Finn that comes anywhere near capturing the richness of the novel. Most have simply approached it as a “boy’s book,” emphasizing its humor. In saying what he said, Hemingway recognized that Huckleberry Finn deals with profound themes in American culture: love, death, self-reliance, racism, Puritanism, the tyranny of the majority, the failure of the past, the confusion of the present, and the appalling American demand that each person invent himself in The New World.

It’s also the simple story of a very brave boy. When Huck decides at last to help Jim escape to freedom, he says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell!” It is one of the great moments of courage in the history of literature, because Huck believes, literally and vividly, that the fires of eternal damnation await him for his act of conscience.

People die in Huckleberry Finn—people Huck loves—and his best friend (Tom Sawyer) lacks the character to follow where Huck’s conscience leads him. Despite its “happy” ending, it’s also rather sad: in the end, Huck must “light out for the Territory,” alone.

And, of course, amazingly, it’s a terrifically funny book, too, with plenty of action sequences. No wonder Hemingway felt about it the way he did.

I admire your movies, especially Empire of the Sun, which deals with some of the same themes as Huckleberry Finn and wasn’t afraid to take a boy’s story seriously. I have no personal stake in your doing this movie except that I happen to love good movies, and I happen to love this book. (Heaven help me, I also have a bunch of degrees in American literature.)

Please make a movie of Huckleberry Finn. And thanks for reading my longwinded suggestion.


Sincerely,

Ed Weathers


At the bottom of this post is a link to the actual letter in both its original and final forms. Here are some of the writing questions that any letter like this raises, and how I answered them:

Would you address a fan letter "Dear Mr. Jeter"?
Q: How formal should the letter be?
A: This question comprises a lot of sub-questions. For example, how should I address Steven Spielberg? This is always a tricky question for letters to celebrities. Should I say “Dear Steven” or “Dear Mr. Spielberg”? “Dear Mr. Spielberg” seems rather formal, considering film fans feel we know him well. Would we write a fan letter to Tom Hanks that says “Dear Mr. Hanks”? Most fans I know would say “Dear Tom.” Likewise, most Yankee fans would write “Dear Derek,” not “Dear Mr. Jeter.” But, as a director, Spielberg is a bit more removed from his fans than an actor like Tom Hanks—slightly higher (or at least less visible) in the film hierarchy—so I chose “Dear Mr. Spielberg.” To have written “Dear Steven” would have seemed presumptuous, as if I were pretending to be his friend. When writing, you must take into account your relationship with your reader, and the salutation of a letter is the first step in defining that relationship.
      Another question of formality has to do with contractions: To have contractions or not to have contractions? A very formal letter would have no contractions. I could have started the letter: “I am writing to suggest, if you have not already suggested it to yourself . . .” This seemed a bit too formal for me. I wanted to come across as an ordinary person, not a fuddy duddy, so I used contractions (I'm, haven't). When writing, you must decide what kind of persona (image or impression) you want to establish. Try to establish that persona at the very beginning of a document.
      Finally, there was the general question of the formality of the vocabulary: Should the vocabulary be formal/serious/academic or informal/light/everyday? I have a history in academia, but I wanted first to come across as an ordinary film fan. I didn’t use academic terms like “personification” or “narrative arc” or even “cinema.” I didn’t use any words that an ordinary educated person wouldn’t know. On the other hand, I didn’t shy from using terms like “the tyranny of the majority” and “Puritanism,” which are better understood by American studies specialists than by the average person. Such phrases, while not difficult to comprehend, were useful in establishing that I’ve thought a lot about this book. They also help establish my credentials as someone who understands how to talk about the themes of books and movies. Again, I worked hard to have just the right balance of ordinary and a-little-more-erudite-than-ordinary language in the letter.

Should my letter start with Hemingway or not?

Q: How should the letter begin?
In the first draft of my letter, I began with the quote from Hemingway and spent the first paragraph making the claim that there had never been a film that took Huckleberry Finn as seriously as I think it deserves to be taken. The opening words of a document are hugely important. If they turn the reader off, the writer will have a devil of a time turning the reader on again. I thought the Hemingway quote made a strong statement, and Hemingway certainly has more credibility for Steven Spielberg than this unknown guy named Ed Weathers.
     But then I thought: Steven Spielberg is a busy man. In Hollywood, it is said, you should be able to summarize an entire film idea in one sentence, and in a movie pitch to studio heads, you’d better start with that sentence because that’s all they might listen to. So I decided to begin the letter with the point of the letter: that I wanted Spielberg to make a movie of Huckleberry Finn. In the United States, it is usually a good idea to start a business letter—which, in effect, this is—with your main point. (Note: In many other parts of the world, like Asia, South America, and the Middle East, you should take a more roundabout way to get to your point, lest you be thought discourteous or brusque. More on that in a future post.)

Should I mention the Mickey Rooney version of Huckleberry Finn?

Q: How much detail should I put in?
At one point in the composition of this letter, I decided that I should list all the movie versions of Huckleberry Finn that have been made in the past. This seemed useful because I knew that Spielberg wouldn’t make a decision about this until he had seen the previous versions of the story, and I wanted to make it easy for him to find them. Try to answer all your reader’s questions, and try to offer useful information, even if your reader may not think to ask for it. I thought one of Spielberg’s questions might be what other films had been made of Huck’s story. Besides, I know from reading about him that Steven Spielberg likes to watch movies, and a list of previous versions of the story would show him that I, too, am a movie buff. Try to learn as much about your readers as you can, so you can appeal to them as effectively as possible, with information they might want and arguments that might persuade them.
      I also know, for example, that Spielberg loves the movie Lawrence of Arabia, which happens to be my favorite movie of all time. I considered mentioning that in the letter, too, for obvious reasons.
     In the end, I didn’t put in any movie history or say anything about my love of Lawrence of Arabia. I didn't even mention that I wrote my Master’s thesis about Huckleberry Finn. Why not? Simply because it would have taken up too much space, and that information didn’t seem necessary to make my point. Like any busy businessman, Steven Spielberg isn’t going to give a letter like this much time. Most business letters should be no more than one page. No doubt you might see some things in the letter that you would have left out to make the letter even shorter.
     (The question of how long a document should be is not to be taken lightly. My blog posts, for example, like this one, are always longer than they should be. This is a result of my self-indulgence and shows, in a sense, a lack of consideration to my readers. I apologize.)
Should I mention that Lawrence of Arabia, one of Spielberg's favorite movies, is also my favorite?


Q: What arguments would be most persuasive?
At the heart of most writing is the need to be persuasive. You are trying to convince someone to do something or to change the way they think about something. What did I need to say to have the best chance of persuading Steven Spielberg that his making a film of Huckleberry Finn was a good idea? (Note: Being a realist, I will not judge the success of the letter by whether he actually makes the film. I could have made the best case in the world, and he might really want to make the movie I want him to make, but there are a thousand reasons he won’t or can’t. Sometimes, as a writer, you can be as persuasive as humanly possible and still not get what you want. Live with it.)
     In the end, I decided to keep the focus of my argument on the book itself. First, I had to show that the novel is worthy of being a film. This was easy: the Hemingway quote, the list of the novel’s themes, and the fact that it had been the subject of so many other film versions made that point sufficiently, I thought. I call this the “positive” argument—the argument that says why my position is correct.
     Second, I had to address Spielberg’s most likely objections to making a movie of the book. Those objections were, I believed, 1) it’s already been made into a movie and 2) it’s just a lightweight children’s book. The heart of the letter, then, including the Hemingway quote, is devoted to explaining that this is a book to be taken seriously—it is not just a humorous kids' book—and that the films that have been made previously have not captured the book’s true spirit. Always address your reader’s possible counterarguments. This is an indispensable part of powerful persuasion. I call this the “converse” argument: it explains why potential objections to my position are weak.
     Of course, knowing Spielberg’s movies, most of which include action and humor, I also needed to point out that Huckleberry Finn also has both of those characteristics, in addition to its serious side. It is also, as I mention, a book with a child as the protagonist—something that Spielberg has focused on in nearly all his movies. When you can, appeal to your reader’s values in your argument.

Q: Should I flatter Steven Spielberg or not?
This is another difficult question when you write, especially when you write to people in positions of power and fame (including your boss). Be respectful, but don't come across as an obsequious sycophant. (“Obsequious sycophant” is more or less redundant, but it was a favorite phrase of my high-school English teacher Mr. Cates, who clearly understood its redundancy and who always said it with a sly grin while subtly accusing one of being just such a thing.) If your reader thinks you’re just flattering him to get your way, your motives will be called into question and you will lose all credibility. A writer who loses his credibility will also lose his reader.  In this letter, this question—how much to flatter Mr. Spielberg—was easy to answer: all I had to do was tell the truth. The truth was this: I like his movies, especially Empire of the Sun, and that’s why I want him to make the definitive movie version of Huckleberry Finn. This was absolutely sincere on my part. If you write sincerely, your credibility will rarely be called into question—nor should it be. I also think the mention of one specific film—Empire of the Sun—will help convince him of my sincerity here: it shows I know his films pretty well (this is not one of his best-known ones), and it has a subject—a young boy trying to make his way in difficult circumstances—that is apt to Huckleberry Finn. In any writing, relevant specifics are powerful additions to a strong argument.
Is it sucking up too much to mention that Empire of the Sun is one of my favorite movies?

Q: Should I mention my own credentials or not?
When they’re relevant, it’s perfectly legitimate for a writer to mention his credentials in a business letter. This is one more element that can add to his credibility. On the other hand, you don’t want to come across as bragging. I thought it worth mentioning that I have some expertise in American literature, so Spielberg knew this letter was from someone who has a fairly sophisticated understanding of the novel. I did this as light-heartedly as I could: “Heaven help me, I also have a bunch of degrees in American literature.” In this case, as usual, tone is everything. I also thought it was important for him to know that I had no personal stake in the enterprise—I wasn’t some screenwriter trying to get a gig, for example. He no doubt gets enough of that.


Q: Is the letter visually designed well?
Good writers design their documents so that their readers can read and navigate them easily. (In Professional Writing classes, the two key virtues of good writing are said to be “usability” and “persuasiveness.” Good design contributes to usability. Conversely, bad design can make your writing less persuasive by annoying your reader.) In this letter, I’ve tried to have a conventional block-letter look (no indents, spaces between paragraphs), standard margins, plenty of white space, and relatively short paragraphs, so the page doesn’t look intimidating to read. I chose paper with a simple border—nothing so showy that it would distract from the writing, but fancy enough to suggest that the idea deserves to be on something better than printer paper.
      Originally, the ideas in my second paragraph were divided into two paragraphs, but that seemed to result in too many small paragraphs. Too many small paragraphs suggest that the writer is unable to develop and sustain an idea. Too many long paragraphs, on the other hand, suggest that the writer either doesn’t care that he's burdening the reader with text-heavy pages or assumes he has the authority to force the reader to read on. If anything, I’d say the paragraphs in this letter are a bit too short.


Q: How should I end the letter?
I chose to end it by repeating the point of the document (Please make the movie, Mr. Spielberg) and with a brief self-deprecating comment acknowledging his courtesy in reading such a long letter. (I tend to be too self-deprecating in my writing. As in this very parenthetical comment.)

Q: Will anyone else besides Steven Spielberg read this letter?
Obviously, the answer to this is Yes. It will probably be read by one of his assistants first. In fact, when I sent him a similar letter ten years ago, I had a cover letter addressed directly to the assistant, asking the assistant to pass it along! This time that seemed to me a bit too coy. But I did try to write in such a way that an intelligent assistant (probably a film-loving college grad) would appreciate the letter. A good writer always considers secondary readers.
I didn't proofread carefully enough!

Q: Did I proofread the letter carefully before I sent it off?
I thought I did. I made sure I had the date on it (something I often forget in letters) and that I signed it legibly. (Some people are offended by a rushed, illegible signature.) I read it aloud twice. But you’ll notice that in the sentence that begins “People die in Huckleberry Finn . . .” I forgot to italicize the title of the book—and that, unfortunately, is how I sent the letter off. Good writers proofread, proofread, and proofread again. Then they set their document aside for a while and come back to it later, for one more proofreading.  If you have a good editor among your friends or family, it’s best to have that person proofread for you at the end. In my eagerness to send out the letter, I didn’t do that. I hate errors like this. I hope Mr. Spielberg doesn’t notice.

And I hope, someday, to see Huckleberry Finn on the big screen, directed by Steven Spielberg, faithfully adapted from a novel of the same name.


(Here’s the first version of my letter to Steven Spielberg.
Here's the final version of my letter to Steven Spielberg.  Notice how the second version starts differently from the first, and how it is designed differently.)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

THE SENSATIONAL SENTENCE FRAGMENT: Yes, it often plays a role in good writing. A surprisingly big role.

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A teacher's typical reaction upon spotting a sentence fragment.
       In some circles—especially in junior-high, high-school, and college composition classes—the sentence fragment is treated a little like dog poop on the living room rug. Most teachers wrinkle their noses at the sentence fragment. This is understandable. Students who write unintentional sentence fragments indicate that they don’t know the three essential elements of a standard English sentence: a subject and a verb in an independent clause.


Examples of typical student sentence fragments (underlined):

Fragment: Beatrice leaped into the cave. Even though, Dante was afraid of the dark.

Fragment: Fluffy licking his nether parts and purring loudly while the mouse frolicked.

Fragment: This was all Bruce wanted. To pass organic chemistry.

     Most teachers would recommend that these sentences be corrected something like this:

Correct: Beatrice leaped into the cave, even though Dante was afraid of the dark.

Correct: Fluffy licked his nether parts and purred loudly while the mouse frolicked.

Correct: This was all Bruce wanted: to pass organic chemistry.

     If I were teaching the students who wrote the fragments above, I too would say that they needed to be cleaned up—not because they are fragments, but because they are fragments that don’t work.
     Some fragments do work. And work well. A fragment doesn’t have to be dog poop.
     Below are some pieces of first-rate writing.  Each has at least one fragment at the heart of it. See if you can identify the fragments. Afterward, I’ll talk about how those fragments work.

    
Take my wife. Please.
joke usually attributed to comedian Henny Youngman.

On a wet Wednesday evening in Seoul, six government employees gather at the office to prepare for a late-night patrol. The mission is as simple as it is counterintuitive: to find children who are studying after 10 P.M. And stop them.
—from “Teacher, Leave Those Kids Alone,” Time magazine, Dec. 5, 2011, p. 47.

A badly or maliciously programmed bot strain might decide not just to clean up a tire dump but to eat the rubber in tires and asphalt tar binder. Everywhere. Or all the cotton. Or polyester, or insulation on electrical wiring, or ‘paper money.’
—from Enough, by Bill McKibben, p. 90 (describing the potential dangers of nano-size robots).

By the same evening he was able to stand with the doctor’s help and let himself be washed. His legs were thin as sticks, and trembling, but the doctor made him walk upon the spot until he was exhausted and overcome by nausea. His ribs hurt more than ever, and he was informed that they would probably be a torment for months, at every inhalation. He should use his stomach muscles to breathe, he was informed, and when he tried it, it hurt the wound in his abdomen. Pelagia fetched a mirror and showed him the livid scar across his face and his incipient and Hellenic beard. It itched and bothered him almost as much as his scars, and it gave him a brigand’s air. “I look like a Sicilian,” he said.

    That night he was fed his first solid meal. Snails.
—from Corelli’s Mandolin, by Louis de Bernieres, p. 342

I’ve gone ahead and jotted down a few revealing notes on the bride as I knew her almost six years ago. If my notes should cause the groom, whom I haven’t met, an uneasy moment or two, so much the better. Nobody’s aiming to please, here. More, really, to edify, to instruct.
—from “For Esme—with Love and Squalor,” by J.D. Salinger (first page)

Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.
—from the “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” chapter in Walden, by Henry David Thoreau

Our circle was so large the shouts we heard from the other side seemed to come from another country. Soon all sound was swallowed by the fire. It did not roar but grumbled, cracked, shushed, sucking the air from our throats and all speech with it. The flame rose and licked the grass and we all moved forward, chasing the line of brightness ahead of us. Chasing flames that passed hungrily over the startled grass, leaving nothing of life behind. Nothing but hot, black, bare ground and delicate white filaments of ash, which stirred and crumbled under the trample of bare feet. Now the men rushed ahead with bows cocked, impatient for the circle to shrink toward its center. Smaller and smaller the circle ungrew, with all the former life of a broad grassy plain trapped inside. The animals all caught up in this dance together, mice and men. Men who pushed and pranced, appearing to us as dark stick puppets before the wall of fire. The old people and children came along slowly behind. We were like odd ruined flagpoles, bent double, with our bright clothes flapping. Slow scavengers. We fanned out across the hissing black field, picking up charred insects. Most common were the crisp nguka caterpillars, favorite snack of Anatole’s schoolboys, which resembled small twigs and were impossible to see until I learned to sense their particular gray curve. We picked them up by the basketful until they filled my mind’s eye so completely I knew I would see them in my sleep. . . .
— from The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, p. 345


Henny Youngman said, "I take my wife everywhere. But she keeps coming back."

    
     Let’s start with the first example (I’ll underline the fragments in the examples):


Take my wife. Please.

     Would this famous joke work if it were written “Take my wife, please”? Not very well. It works best with “Please” as a sentence fragment. Let’s analyze how the joke works. (I know, I know: you should never analyze a joke. Indulge me.)
     When you get to the first period, you think that the original statement (“Take my wife”), and hence the original thought, is complete. The period makes you pause, prepared for a new thought—then boom!, with the perfect timing of a good comedian you’re hit with a punch line that you weren’t expecting. That one-word sentence fragment “Please”—the surprise addition—makes it all work.
      One common kind of effective fragment, then, is the “surprise addition” fragment. With the first period, you make your reader think a thought is over—that’s what periods ordinarily tell us—but then you add a fragment that, as a surprise, really finishes the thought. It’s the period that comes before a fragment that sets up the whole effect.

     The Time magazine example works pretty much the same way:

On a wet Wednesday evening in Seoul, six government employees gather at the office to prepare for a late-night patrol. The mission is as simple as it is counterintuitive: to find children who are studying after 10 P.M. And stop them.


We readers, programmed to expect grown-ups to encourage students to study more, are not prepared for the government employees to make them stop. Putting “And stop them” in a fragment (instead of attaching it to the previous sentence as standard syntax would demand) makes it doubly a surprise. We expect the thought to be ended at the period after “10 P.M.” So, unprepared, we’re surprised when the fragment—and the idea it contains—jumps at us like a friend popping out of a room we thought was empty. (Note: It would be a better surprise if the writer had left out the heavy-handed spoiler “counterintuitive” in the previous sentence.)

      Remember: The period that precedes a fragment acts to lull the reader into complacency. He thinks the idea is finished. He’s ready to leave the room. Then boo!, you jump at him with the surprise fragment that really finishes the idea.

Bill McKibben's book Enough examines the dangers of genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology.

      The Bill McKibben example, from his thought-provoking book Enough, works in a similar but not exactly the same way:

A badly or maliciously programmed bot strain might decide not just to clean up a tire dump but to eat the rubber in tires and asphalt tar binder. Everywhere. Or all the cotton. Or polyester, or insulation on electrical wiring, or ‘paper money.’

     Here the reader thinks it’s bad enough that the insane nanobots (which were programmed just to clear up one pile of rubber tires) go crazy and start eating more nearby tires and even the roads. After the period at the end of the first sentence, we readers relax a bit, digesting a pretty frightening image: crumbling roads, cars with disintegrating tires. But surprise!, the thought is not over. “Everywhere.” This first fragment is the first surprise: It’s not just the tires and roads in one area the nanobots will eat; it’s the tires and roads all over the world. Yipes! It’s worse than we thought. Then, as we think that that thought is finally over (because the thought in English sentences is supposed to be over at the period), we get more: the bots will eat all the cotton, too! Then another added fragment: and they’ll eat all the polyester or all the electrical stuff or even all the money. This paragraph ends with three fragments that build on each other, until finally, shaken out of our period-ends-the-thought contentment by each new fragment, we realize that in a nanobot world (according to McKibben) people will be naked, powerless, and destitute. Everywhere.
     The McKibben example thus illustrates another kind of effective fragment: The “don’t relax yet—it gets even worse” fragment. The thought in English sentences is supposed to be over at the period. But not when you add a fragment.

Louis de Bernieres' novel Corelli's Mandolin is a modern classic. Skip the mediocre movie. Read the great book.

      The example from Louis de Berniere’s beautiful, sweet, romantic, horrifying, and funny novel Correli’s Mandolin works still another way.

By the same evening he was able to stand with the doctor’s help and let himself be washed. His legs were thin as sticks, and trembling, but the doctor made him walk upon the spot until he was exhausted and overcome by nausea. His ribs hurt more than ever, and he was informed that they would probably be a torment for months, at every inhalation. He should use his stomach muscles to breathe, he was informed, and when he tried it, it hurt the wound in his abdomen. Pelagia fetched a mirror and showed him the livid scar across his face and his incipient and Hellenic beard. It itched and bothered him almost as much as his scars, and it gave him a brigand’s air. “I look like a Sicilian,” he said.

    That night he was fed his first solid meal. Snails.

    A consummate, almost classical stylist, de Bernieres has few fragments in his work (unlike Time magazine, which uses them a lot. A lot.). De Berniere’s style runs more toward longish, elegant, compound/complex sentences, like most of those in the first paragraph here. That’s partly why the final sentence fragment—the single word “Snails”—is so effective. That long first paragraph and all those richly worded sentences, filled with details of the injured soldier’s condition, have left us readers almost writhing in pain with him. We are even prepared for more graphic and painful detail. But instead, with an abrupt change of pace, we get a new brief paragraph and a short penultimate sentence: That night he was fed his first solid meal. For a moment we think that’s the end (we don’t really need to know what the meal was, after all) or we imagine, for just the briefest moment (before it registers that there’s another word), a mundane first meal like mashed potatoes or lamb chops or cereal. Or maybe a fancy celebratory meal like steak and cake. Then the surprise, both in style and substance: “Snails.”
     Here the sentence fragment is almost magical. The word “snails” is short and plain, after all, and snails as a food is always a surprise, anyway—doubly so in the context of a badly injured soldier’s first solid meal. “Snails” is so strange that it almost makes one laugh.
     De Bernieres is illustrating some other principles here: Syntax, word choice, content, and context all work together in great writing. A great sentence fragment creates surprise in all those areas. First, a sentence fragment by its very nature violates the rules of standard syntax, especially when a writer has been, till then, using much more complex syntax. That’s the first surprise. (“Syntax,” by the way, is just a fancy word for sentence architecture.) Second, a good sentence fragment uses brief, unexpected words—usually simple ones like “please,” and “everywhere” and “snails.” Third, a good sentence fragment usually surprises by its content: Who would have expected the soldier’s first solid meal to be snails? Fourth, and finally, a good sentence fragment surprises by the context in which it’s placed: long sentences, the almost clinical description of pain and convalescence, followed by . . . snails?
     In this case, the fragment “Snails.” also ends a chapter of the book—a chapter otherwise painful in many ways. It’s a perfect snapped-shut, mood-shifting ending for a chapter.
     Let me say a bit more about this fragment. Some of you might be asking this: Couldn’t de Berneires’ last sentence simply have been rewritten in standard punctuation? Like this:

     That night he was fed his first solid meal: snails.

     Yes, it could have been written that way. But the effect would not quite have been the same, for at least two reasons. First off, the colon would tell the reader instantly to expect a description of the meal. The period does not prepare you for that. That means the colon would have undermined the surprise factor just a bit. And second, leaving “Snails” between periods, like a sentence unto itself, forces the reader to invent the sentence elements (subjects, verbs) and the implications that might go with it. For example: “Of all things, the meal was snails” or “How strange that snails were the meal” or “Surely no one would have expected that the meal would be snails” or “It was a gross meal of snails.” In other words, the special oddness of snails (or, if the previous context of the novel calls for it, the special appropriateness of snails) is emphasized by the fragment far better than it would be if the word simply finished the previous sentence by coming after a colon.
    
J.D. Salinger's short story "For Esme—With Love and Squalor" is one of the great stories of the 20th century.

       The J.D. Salinger quote offers a differ kind of fragment:

I’ve gone ahead and jotted down a few revealing notes on the bride as I knew her almost six years ago. If my notes should cause the groom, whom I haven’t met, an uneasy moment or two, so much the better. Nobody’s aiming to please, here. More, really, to edify, to instruct.

     Here, the fragment at the end is not, I think, so much designed to surprise the reader as to reflect the state of mind of the writer/narrator. We will come to learn that the narrator of this famous and moving short story is a soldier psychologically damaged by war. This paragraph, which comes on the first page of the story, helps begin to establish the soldier’s mental state. He’s self-conscious about his writing and its effect (especially on the groom). He’s thoughtful and nostalgic (thinking back six years). He wants to come across as a bit rebellious (he doesn’t care if the groom is upset by what he’s writing; he claims that he wants the groom to be upset). He even claims he’s not trying to please anyone. This is an odd claim. So odd, in fact, that he stops, pauses, and then, almost as if to explain his motives to himself, writes his sentence fragment: “More, really, to edify, to instruct.” Here, once again, the period before the fragment is the key: It is the pause during which the writer himself literally stops to think. He wants to consider what he is about to say. He wants, in fact, to consider, or reconsider, his purpose in writing. The fragment is his syntactically stumbling attempt to do that. (Note how chopped up the fragment is by commas.)
     A fragment, then, surrounded as it is by periods, can indicate that a writer’s (or narrator's) progress has been put on pause. It can give the impression of a writer stepping back, gathering himself, and mulling things over before he moves on. Perhaps even searching his soul a bit.

Henry David Thoreau knew the power of the sentence fragment.

      If Salinger’s sentence fragment reflects the narrator’s self-consciousness and tentativeness, Thoreau’s does just the opposite. It is a self-confident and assertive shout-out in the middle of a paragraph.

Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.

     Here the fragment—“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!”—bursts out as if the writer simply could not contain himself any longer within the strictures of standard English grammar. And of course, such a fragment also does what most sentence fragments do: It gives extra emphasis to the idea within the fragment. It’s like putting it on a billboard in the middle of an otherwise empty field.
    (Question for students: Later in the paragraph, Thoreau writes, "Simplify, simplify." This is not a fragment. Why not?)


Barbara Kingsolver's novel The Poisonwood Bible looks at missionary life in Africa.
     Finally, we have the long paragraph from Barbara Kingsolver’s spectacular and profound novel The Poisonwood Bible.

Our circle was so large the shouts we heard from the other side seemed to come from another country. Soon all sound was swallowed by the fire. It did not roar but grumbled, cracked, shushed, sucking the air from our throats and all speech with it. The flame rose and licked the grass and we all moved forward, chasing the line of brightness ahead of us. Chasing flames that passed hungrily over the startled grass, leaving nothing of life behind. Nothing but hot, black, bare ground and delicate white filaments of ash, which stirred and crumbled under the trample of bare feet. Now the men rushed ahead with bows cocked, impatient for the circle to shrink toward its center. Smaller and smaller the circle ungrew, with all the former life of a broad grassy plain trapped inside. The animals all caught up in this dance together, mice and men. Men who pushed and pranced, appearing to us as dark stick puppets before the wall of fire. The old people and children came along slowly behind. We were like odd ruined flagpoles, bent double, with our bright clothes flapping. Slow scavengers. We fanned out across the hissing black field, picking up charred insects. Most common were the crisp nguka caterpillars, favorite snack of Anatole’s schoolboys, which resembled small twigs and were impossible to see until I learned to sense their particular gray curve. We picked them up by the basketful until they filled my mind’s eye so completely I knew I would see them in my sleep. . . .

     This excerpt illustrates, finally, one other use for sentence fragments: They speed the prose along, often with an intentional unruliness. More particularly, they can help generate scenes of hurry, tumult, even chaos. Here Kingsolver is describing a nighttime hunt-by-fire in Africa, the fire being used to flush out animals. The narrator is a child, for whom the scene is new and confusing. The sentence fragments, usually lacking the verbs that would make them complete sentences, come at us like sudden fire-lit images. It’s almost as if the writer is too rushed or overwhelmed to fill in the verbs. Syntactically unregulated themselves, such fragments mirror the disorder at the heart of a scene like this.

     
      So. Sentence fragments. Not dog poop at all. Rare gems, instead.