In an earlier post (Got Five Minutes?), I suggested that a quick revision of a single sentence can be a good exercise in clarifying the first thoughts we put down on paper or screen. The difficulty many of us have in moving from mind-work to word-work—I know what I want to say, but I just can’t get it into words—is in the very nature of composition, and the way over that high hill is practice and practice. Here’s another example.
Imagine you’re writing about a recent job interview you endured. You recall the scene and you write this sentence: I was asked to wait in a windowless, cold conference room with a long glass table and steel chairs with vinyl cushions. You go on to complete the paragraph, and then read it again to revise it (nothing, not even a Post-it, is ever finished until it is read again at least once). This sentence just doesn’t feel right to you, and you close in on it with a steely analytical eye to make some changes.
A good first step is to read aloud the sentence you are examining, observing first the number of clauses the sentence comprises. A clause is a group of words with a subject and verb, and every combination of subject and verb makes up a thought, something you want to assert and maintain. This first step in the revision protocol will make clear to you the general shape of what you’ve written. The shape of a sentence means its large design, and that is important because design follows meaning: we are trying to com-pose (the Latin word means put together) our ideas. If a sentence befits the idea we see in our mind, then we’ve done all we can. But the reverse can be revealing. If a sentence is not well designed, it’s a good sign we’re not looking deeply enough into what we want to say.
So the first thing you notice is that you’ve written a grammatically simple sentence: there is only one main clause (I was asked), and you note that the verb is in the passive voice (where the subject is not the agent of the action). Maybe you’ll decide to change that, maybe not. You keep looking closely at the structure of the sentence, and next you observe that you’ve written three prepositional phrases (in…, with…, and with…). Phrases, unlike clauses, are groups of words without a subject and verb and they are loaded with potential energy—potential, not actual, because without a subject and verb, they’re not directly asserting anything. Phrases suggest, imply, insinuate, but they don’t proclaim something outright. We should therefore look at them closely in revision in order to decide whether we can convert one or two into clauses to bring more energy, in the form of another assertion, to the sentence.
Let’s see what that would look like in the sentence under consideration here. We can’t do much with the first prepositional phrase, in a windowless, cold conference room, because the infinitive to wait needs that phrase as an adverb to show where the subject was waiting. (One thing we can do, however, is change the order of the two adjectives: a cold, windowless conference room. Adjectives name qualities. Qualities are either temporary or permanent, and they are placed in that order before the noun they modify. The conference room you’re describing will always be windowless because it was built that way; it can, though, be cold one day and hot the next.) But what about the energy that can be converted in the other two prepositional phrases? If we rewrite those phrases as clauses, we transform a flat-sounding simple sentence into a little livelier compound one: I was asked to wait in a cold, windowless conference room; it had a long glass table and steel chairs, and the vinyl seat cushions gave off an artificial warmth. Maybe a little overwritten now, but changing that first prepositional phrase into a clause had the effect of generating new ideas, some of which we may keep and some not. And that’s why revising really has no end.
Revising is not so much a matter of correcting what is wrong (though of course it includes that), but of deciding how the reader will see what we’ve seen—and helping ourselves see even more deeply into our experience. The same reality can be caught from many different positions and under various kinds of light and shade. The techniques of grammar and composition give us the means to determine that clarity and suggestion, what is said directly in a clause and what is merely implied with a phrase. Whether one enjoys more the new creation of a rough draft or the close analysis involved in revising it, we must do both to end up with a well-designed body of prose. And well-designed means fit to the purpose intended.