Got Five Minutes?
Read and Revise One Sentence

In the study of music, an étude is a short composition written to practice technique. Musicians play études to exercise their skill and improve their proficiency. Writers can do something similar by revising one short sentence for a few minutes over and over, knowingly changing structure and design to see the different effects that result. Here’s an example.

I go for a walk (on a stunningly beautiful afternoon, in fact) and I let my imagination open into the almost cryingly beautiful blue sky above me. There appears after a while, who knows from where, the sentence If it’s sunny again, I’m going to drive to the beach tomorrow. Pure imagination, because that’s not going to happen tomorrow. But I have a sentence for my writing étude, so I keep it in my mind, and later at home I transform it into various shapes, each reflecting a little differently the first imaginative light that burst into my head on that walk. This written étude of mine is an exercise, and so I have to allow myself to be both playful and disciplined at once. Playful means I’m not after anything in particular; disciplined means I have to know what changes I am making to the grammar in order to accrue and keep hold of a skill that will be readier at hand each time I write again.

The word étude means study (from the French), and I can begin the study of my sentence by just looking at it. What kind of sentence did I write? If it’s sunny again, I’m going to drive to the beach tomorrow is a conditional sentence, and conditional sentences have two clauses: one that states a set of circumstances (often beginning with the subordinating conjunction if ) and another that states the result of those circumstances. So one thing I can do right away is simply change the order of the two clauses: I’m going to drive to the beach tomorrow if it’s sunny again. Doing that (and remembering the change in punctuation I have to make), I observe that I originally put the adverb tomorrow in the result clause, but now I see it would make more logical sense in the conditional clause: I’m going to drive to the beach if it’s sunny again tomorrow. This brings tomorrow right next to again, which is where it belongs because those two adverbs work together. Now, though, the sentence seems a little top heavy, too sophisticated for the simple ideas it’s expressing. Results logically follow conditions in the real world, but here I’ve put the result first, and that unbalances a sentence with such simple ideas. So I reverse the two clauses again, keeping only the adverbial change: If it’s sunny again tomorrow, I’m going to drive to the beach.

All of that maneuvering has now brought to mind the idea of changing the kind of conditional sentence I originally wrote. What would happen if I changed the initial subordinating conjunction: Whenever the sun is shining, I go to the beach. Changing the subordinating conjunction from if to whenever (along with changing the verb in the result clause) has altered the meaning from a statement about what might happen tomorrow to a statement of general truth, whether it happens tomorrow or any other day. And what if I change the verb of the result clause again: Whenever the sun is shining, I’m at the beach. Now the tone is much more familiar, as if a friend is talking to a friend. If I next unwrite the contraction, I can reduce that casual tone a little (but just a little because the meaning of the clause has only so much seriousness in it): Whenever the sun is shining, I am at the beach. Or if I return to the earlier technique of simply reversing the order of the two clauses, what happens? Putting the result clause first now seems to work (because it’s a bit outlandish to say that one goes to the beach every time the sun appears), and the unbalance I fretted over earlier now seems to fit: I am at the beach whenever the sun is shining. Or I could push the casual quality over the edge by taking advantage of ellipsis and omit almost half the words: Sunny tomorrow, and I’m at the beach!

A hundred other changes are possible, but this technique I call a written étude is meant to help pry open that dry mass of potential ideas we all have by giving them linguistic forms to take shape in. Think of revising like this as inviting your ideas to take a seat in your orchestra. You’re the conductor, and you’re directing each idea on where and when to rise or descend. You hear what results, change your direction, and listen again to what results. But the changes you make are not haphazard; you’re not playing by ear. You know grammatically what you’re doing, and that makes all the difference, because knowing the how and why means we’re working with reason, and reason, when we have it, is dependable, and can make real change possible.


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