Design Work

A friend of mine tried his hand recently at writing a short story, a focused and well-constructed four pages about a young man’s preoccupation with beauty and the meaning its unexpected displays might reveal. Here are his opening two sentences:

Done properly, stocking shelves can be the work of an artist. In the morning Michael would look down each aisle, each can fronted exactly right, at the shelf edge, labels aligned, boxes of rice and pasta proudly displayed in a solid wall, even the odd shapes of the various detergents were ordered.

Let’s observe that first sentence closely. Grammatically simple with only one clause (stocking shelves can be), it opens with a subordinate element in the form of a participial phrase (done properly). Participles are adjectives, and adjectives modify nouns, and when a sentence begins with such a participial phrase, it creates a degree of anticipation, because we don’t immediately know what noun the adjective (done) is modifying. This first note of the measure, so to speak, sets our attention slightly akilter, because our rational mind wants above all to know what’s what. When that need to identify a noun which will be the subject of a verb is interrupted, however slightly, we have to sit up straight and attend more closely to what’s about to unfold. And that’s exactly where the writer wants us to be. Nicely done.

It’s the long second sentence, though, that can remind us of a few important points about sentence design. We can see the basic outline of its shape by noting an independent clause (Michael would look) followed by a substantial subordinate element that comprises the balance of the sentence (from each can to the period). We will come to learn in the story that this grocery store worker, Michael, takes a sensitive pride in his work of stocking shelves, and this subordinate grammatical element is meant to substantiate that attention and the meaning the protagonist invests in it. This long phrase, in other words, is painting a broad background before which other actions will unfold, and that is all to the good.

I call this section of the sentence a phrase, but arguably it is not, and that is the first thing we should notice and redesign. Each can fronted, labels aligned, boxes displayed form the skeleton of three noun-plus-participle units. That design establishes a parallelism, and one that has a triadic structure to boot. Parallelism brings order and rational sense to a scene, and grouping in threes itself is a long-recognized practice in design work of all kinds. But that triadic parallelism (as it is fancily called) is marred by the addition of the final ten words of the sentence. The writer has inadvertently added a fourth element in the form of a clause (odd shapes were ordered) to this otherwise shapely design, and that addition unbalances the sentence as a whole. I read this attachment as a clause and not simply as another phrase because only here has the writer included the auxiliary verb (were), suggesting an explicit assertion. One quick redesign might be to make this entire appendage a sentence in its own right: Even the odd shapes of the various detergents were ordered.

If we return, though, to the previous triad (each can fronted exactly right, at the shelf edge, labels aligned, boxes of rice and pasta proudly displayed in a solid wall) and look closely at the punctuation, we can see that there’s something amiss with the comma after the word right. This comma seems to work with the subsequent comma after edge, and the two commas together set off the prepositional phrase between them. But in doing that, the triadic structure of the section is broken, and we halt as we read through it. Simply remove that comma after right, and the three units become obvious.

But now let’s look very closely at the composition of these now three clear units. The first member sets the pattern: noun phrase + participle + adverb (each can fronted exactly right at the shelf edge). The second member has no adverbial complement (labels aligned), and the third member conforms to a different order entirely: noun phrase + adverb + participle + adverb (boxes of rice and pasta proudly displayed in a solid wall). We can have too much of parallelism, it is true, but as an exercise in composition and, I think, a legitimate correction here, we would want at least the last of these three units to realign itself to the pattern establish by the first member: boxes of rice and pasta displayed proudly as a solid wall. And changing the preposition in to as will preclude too literal a reading of that prepositional phrase.

All of these changes are the work of revision, not creation, and that’s important to remember because what we ultimately put into words we first see dimly in our mind. There, in our mind, is the vision, the ideas, and what we see with our mind’s eye must be shaped according to the kind of thinking with which we will be reading the words. That’s why poetry is not prose and a short story is not an analytical report. Getting the right outward form, or shape, is what revision is all about, and it can often take on a degree of analysis and adjustment that we might not have expected. Good work, though, always lies in the details.


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