As an exercise in freewriting, a student of mine recently wrote this droll little sentence about two birds she imagined sitting, for quite some time as it happens, on the branch of a tall oak tree:
After fifteen minutes of waiting for Marty to start building a nest Clare took it upon herself to gather lint from the neighbors dryer, loose dry grass on the baseball field, mud from the small puddle at the base of the tree, and piled them all close to Marty, so he could at least begin to build.
Freewriting is a technique to help writers face the open infinity of a blank screen or clean sheet of paper: no rules, just write; no corrections, just keep going. It’s meant to unstick us when we’re stuck, when we find ourselves saying that we’ve got so much to say but just can’t put it all into words. Freewriting, though, is never (ever) the finished product, if for no other reason that it can be so idiosyncratic and peculiar and all our own. We write, though, to communicate (the verb means to share, to make common), and if our readers are unclear about what we’re sharing, there’s no communication going on. We just end up talking to ourselves.
So what could a first revision of this student’s freewriting look like? How could we move from imaginative vision to public presentation? First let’s note that there’s quite a lot of structure already to this freely written sentence: it begins with a sustained introductory phrase, in the middle there’s a neat triadic structure to the items Clare gathered, and commas are present here and there to control parts of the statement as it arose. Freewriting is often freer than this, but how freely we should write is ultimately a matter of degree: whatever amount of freedom is necessary to allow ourselves to see what’s really going on inside and about us. So this sentence might be closer to the final draft than others.
It can be very helpful to begin revising by reading a sentence aloud. The written word is trying to follow the spoken word by combining grammar (and logic) with rhetoric, putting to what the eye can see what the ear has heard deep inside ourselves. Hearing the sentence, we can glean its shape and intent, its push and then release, and it’s just this living movement that the arts of language try to replicate in print. So one thing we could do is recognize the long (twelve-word) introductory phrase and place a comma after nest; that would isolate the element and set the reader ready for the main clause (Clare took it). And then we might look more closely at that triadic arrangement of the things Clare gathered (lint, loose dry grass, and mud), and really hone the three by deleting the two adjectives loose and dry from mud, the second of the three nouns. This would bring the triadic series into parallel (three single nouns each without an attributive adjective) and build a natural rhythm into the statement. Read the two versions aloud and see for yourself.
And finally we could look at that comma after Marty. The word so is a conjunction and it can introduce both purpose and result clauses. These two logical conceptions can appear very similar at times, making it difficult to decide which is present. Here, though, we can conclude that the conjunction so is beginning a result clause because there is an adverb of degree (close) in the main clause. To what end, then, is Clare gathering all these useful items from the urban landscape: so that, that, to the end that her mate could finally get to work. But should a comma introduce that result clause? The grammarian in us will say yes, because the result clause is essential to the action (piled) of the main clause with which it works: action and result are two sides of the same coin. The rhetorician in us, though, will argue convincingly that a comma can introduce a result clause when the clause is sufficiently long and winding and in need of some control. But that is not the case here, and so deleting the comma after Marty is, I judge, the better choice.
Freewriting is gathering the stuff to write with, just as Clare gathered all those oddities for Marty to build a nest with. We are all both Clare and Marty when we write, observing and collecting, organizing and composing. Or think of the imagination as a never-ceasing fountainhead, a spring or source that is always jetting out ideas and associations whether we are watching it or not. Freewriting is what results when we turn in the direction of our imagination, ready to watch and transcribe what we see arising—this, then that and that and that—knowing that it would be futile to control or catch it all, but knowing too that we must try bring or find some order for it all, finally, to make sense. Just like life.