I was revising recently a few paragraphs a student had written about a little boy she knew of. He had not yet learned, it seems, how to wrestle down his anger and change it into some other behavior, but would instead just fall fiercely into a tantrum, “growling, kicking, hissing and spitting.” That was an interesting phrase my student had written, and there is something about its structure we can learn from.
The art of writing (and I would argue the arts universally) work to direct our attention, to gather our inborn proclivity to grow and expand and dissipate. A beautifully drawn picture or sentence gathers our dispersing energy, concentrating it into a focused awareness that can illuminate the world and its meaning. This is why writers take so much care about words all and several: each word alone evokes a world of ideas, and together whole constellations of ideas can come into existence. In revising our work, we proceed on these artistic assumptions, examining the structure of what we’ve drafted.
Doing so with my student’s phrase, then, we begin with the obvious: she has written a group of four words, all present participles, as she concludes a sentence. Artists and designers have long recognized the organizing power that resides is groups of threes, called triads (the subject of an earlier post, Designing by Groups of Three), and so the first revision we can consider here is to delete one of the four participial adjectives. But which one? As present participles, all four end with the suffix –ing, so we can’t use nonconformance with that structure as the reason to remove one from the group. But a second look, not at the end of each word but at its core, will reveal that three of the four comprise the same sound produced by the short vowel i. The first of the group, growling, does not conform, and so on the principle of assonance, or the repetition of similar vowel sounds (here internal to the words), we can confidently reduce the phrase of four words to three: kicking, hissing and spitting.
But a further revision presents itself. The phrase as it stands now is listing three participles serially (though not as strictly serially had the writer employed the Oxford comma, where a comma would precede the conjunction: kicking, hissing, and spitting), and we are reading, it seems, a record or catalog of behaviors which the little boy exhibits. Records and catalogs are unmoving objects in the world, and so the phrase as it stands brings with it a static, scientific quality which may, or may not, be the atmosphere the writer is looking to create in the larger paragraph. If not, if the intent is to keep the human moment empathetically to the fore, then another rhetorical device, expensively called polysyndeton, could be marshalled. This arrangement of words calls all conjunctions to the stage, resulting in a more energetic description: kicking and hissing and spitting. If we put this phrase, then, into its sentence (and note now the absence of commas), we can see how adding another and does not allow the sentence to end in a laboratory-like description, but swipes forcefully at the reader with three threatening acts, just as the subject might well be doing: He would suddenly glare at me, kicking and hissing and spitting.
All of which is to say, then, that the wide nets we must use in composing a first draft will almost always catch more ideas than are strictly necessary. Such profusion, and let’s go so far as to call it really a joyous abundance, is in the nature of creativity, never to be clipped and shorn in its arising. But once things have settled, once words are roughly in their place on a page, then cooler heads must prevail to organize and concentrate and sharpen the picture for the reader. And that is accomplished not by throwing a teeming draft out and starting impatiently again, but by examining closely, according to certain techniques, what arose pell-mell from our internal gaze into mind and memory. And so we write to gather and balance, gather and balance, gather and balance.