Skeletons in the Clause

We seem to have been blessed or cursed (take which perspective you will) with two opposing forces in our human nature: the creative, which allows all things to be, and the analytical, which examines all comers for their propriety and fitness. We see this in writing, of course, in the two very different frames of mind we must assume when we first compose a paragraph and then have to revise it. In the best of times, these two tendencies work together, pulling in this sentence and pushing out that one, accepting and rejecting, all to the result of a solid piece of work that is both meaningful and attractive.

What the creative is and how it shows up when preparations are complete remains (and will always ultimately remain) a mystery, though what our philosophers and psychologists have to say about it can help us recognize its traces and ready ourselves to welcome it (see, for example, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 1990). But the mystery of getting something down on an empty screen or blank piece of paper must give way, eventually, to the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other work of analysis and revision. And that is because creation is messy, and messiness not tidied up obscures the vision of just what it is we’re trying to say.

In this natural movement from creation through growth to fruit—from idea through revisions to final draft, one analytical technique of surpassing practical value is to identify what is called the skeleton of a clause. In an earlier post (Revising by Clauses), I tried to explain that finding this skeleton clause by clause can help us see how we might have misordered the ideas we present across sentences. But the technique can do that and more.

A skeleton is a bony structure, the frame on and within which something assumes a life. In grammar, the skeleton of a clause refers to the essential subject, called the substantive, together with the essential verb; everything else that amplifies the substantive and the verb is set aside for the moment in order to see the central assertions being made. Take, for example, this passage of two sentences:

Tired after a long day of talking and selling, I arrived at the old motel along the highway later than expected, so late that the front door was locked. I rang the doorbell and knocked at the door before a sleepy clerk finally let me in.

There’s a lot there; too much, in fact. The picture is unshaped, and as a result, its power flags. But training our eye to see structure can work wonders. The first sentence has two clauses, the skeletons of which are I arrived and door was locked. Seeing that helps me isolate what has been added to those skeletons, allowing me to examine what first appeared as I began to write, but which might not yet be best formed or positioned. The longish phrase that introduces the first clause, tired after a long day of talking and selling, includes ideas that are not developed subsequently in the passage, probably arriving here from thoughts laid out in the previous paragraph. Being tired is a relevant idea in this passage, but exactly what caused that condition probably is not.

That’s on the subject side of the skeleton. On the predicate side, I can now isolate everything associated with the verb, called the complement of the predicate, and see that the word old really means to suggest decrepit or shabby, and that the entire phrase along the highway is unnecessary because where else is a motel (as opposed to a hotel) than along a highway? So with my eye on just even this first skeletal frame, I can adjust and improve the first clause of the sentence: I arrived tired at the timeworn motel much later than expected. The two adjectives tired and timeworn now suggest an affinity between the state of the subject and the condition of the motel where that subject has found himself. And so the analysis can continue, with the result that what first arose in a creative moment now better reflects what I originally saw in my mind:

I arrived tired at the timeworn motel much later than expected. The front door was locked, and I had to ring the bell and knock over and over before a sleepy, unwelcoming night clerk finally let me in.

Too much of cold analysis can quench the fires of creation entirely, but the right and proper amount will shape and sharpen the ideas we want to express. In the end, creation and analysis are best thought of as good-hearted companions, not antithetical foes.


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  1. rultimo

1 Comment

  1. This post is a wonderful illustration of HOW to revise. Every writer knows that he or she SHOULD revise but many are not sure how to go about it. And the title of the post is just brilliant.

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