Seeing What’s Where

Let’s assume I wrote a sentence like this in my first draft: It was important to me to talk with him about his plan to drive that far alone. And let’s assume next that in beginning my revisions, I decided it just didn’t say in the right way what I wanted to say. I wasn’t sure why, but the sentence didn’t feel right; I sensed that it was off center, out of balance, but I didn’t know what changes to make to better it. How can we work, in other words, in an orderly way to shape and sharpen our first perceptions?

First, a reminder. The incontestable, unarguable, unchallengeable truth is that we ultimately learn to write by reading. So mysterious and subtle and complex is the art of writing (and of all true arts, in truth) that no library of books, no program, no set of clear instructions will ever outline a protocol to make us better writers if only we followed it step by step. Reading means putting ourselves in the hands of models, sitting down before others who know how to do what we want to be able to do. It involves watching their work attentively, not merely allowing ourselves to be affected by it, but trying actively to understand how we have come to see or feel what comes to our mind as we read a sentence or passage.

The answer to how involves technique, and now we come to the work—the pleasurable work—of revising. I say pleasurable because most of us dread the nothingness of a blank screen or wordless piece of paper more than a confused jumble of something. At least a jumble of something is something. So it is helpful next to remember that we should rarely start over entirely if we’re not pleased with what we’ve written. Let stay what has managed to get in the door; welcome it however it has managed to present itself, knowing that you can likely shape it and fit it to the purpose at hand. So if the sentence we began with (It was important to me to talk with him about his plan to drive that far alone) just doesn’t look or feel quite right, how to refashion it?

Right here is where all the technicalities of grammar play their defining role. For all its length, our sentence has only one clause, one combination of subject and verb (it was important), and being able to identify that will help us see that the subject of this one and only clause is not specific and clear: what exactly is important? For that we have to wait until we come to the phrase to talk with him, and so we discover that the grammatical subject is not the logical subject; what is important to me is talking with him about his plan, not it; the pronoun merely tells the reader to anticipate the real thought yet to come. This is called, appropriately enough, an anticipatory subject; we let the reader anticipate, or expect, that the real subject, what we’re really talking about, will come as the sentence unfolds. Sometimes that’s good, and sometimes it just produces a wordiness that is helpful to no one.

So a good first refitting of the sentence would be to use the logical subject as the grammatical subject of this one main clause: Talking to him about his plan…was important to me. And if the context of the sentence was any degree higher than a casual conversation, that would be a good change to make. But there could be another. If I look more closely at some of the other words I wrote in that first draft—his plan, for instance, or alone—perhaps those ideas were really what concerned me. My worry was such that it made me begin the sentence by declaring it was important, but importance was not the real issue, although that’s the idea that found its way into the opening main clause. If I then attended to these other words, my perspective would change, and the result might be: His plan to drive that far alone was dangerous and I told him so. Here is a sentence to be contended with. It stands up straight, says forthrightly what is on its mind­—and does so twice between two clauses: a compound sentence that fires two clear shots, not a simple sentence of one hesitant main clause.

We are able to make changes like this when we exercise ourselves in the habit of looking and looking again. What we wrote in our draft is often, very often, not in its best shape, and so we accept and welcome what we have, and then revise on the assumption that the weight and balance and proportion can be changed, transformed even. Accomplished writers, because they are always looking and looking again, are able to make the hidden seen; they are able to put form and shape to what they really see with their mind’s eye. That form, the words and phrases and clauses, is susceptible to technique; how they see is not. Their seeing is a matter of who they are, what they’ve thought and done. But by reading closely, by observing the form they have given to their perceptions, we can see how they bring an idea to life—how they are creative, and so become more creative in our own writing and revising.



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