Here’s a sentence that sounds a lot like the way we talk: I told him the good news and he looked at me in disbelief and then he smiled and he shook my hand wildly. So what’s the difference between that version and this: When I told him the good news, he looked at me in disbelief; then he burst into a smile, shaking my hand wildly. The short answer: composition.
Our conversational voice is spontaneous. Ideas come to our mind and we speak them. This happened and then that happened, I told him the good news and he looked at me; we put one idea beside another and our thoughts flow on, for better or worse, in an uninterrupted stream. With the exception of certain writers who transform this characteristic of speech into masterly prose, written language tries instead to order events in space and time, to volumize a memory or scene by connecting thoughts, putting some in the foreground and others in the background. Thoughts move from a horizontal plane, this and then that and then that, to a vertical one, this before that or this because of that. In short, our written voice is put together, composed, in a way our conversational voice is often not.
That observation can help us in drafting a document, because if we try too soon to organize our thoughts too rigorously, our mind seizes up like an engine without oil. If, instead, we strike a bargain with ourselves that first thoughts will be just that, first thoughts, we’ll be able to put aside the critical voice—proper in its own place—and let the stream of ideas first ride between its banks. Let’s try to recognize, then, that composition and design and all the rules of the written road apply to our revisions, not our rough draft. That rough draft (and note the singular, because there is only one) is rough hewn because it’s closer to our conversational voice; that’s right and good, because that’s where we can find and preserve our natural voice. But nature left alone, as every gardener knows, will not necessarily produce a good harvest. And so we have all those grammatical tools to work cooperatively for a better yield.
The difference, then, between our original version (I told him the good news and he looked at me in disbelief and then he smiled and he shook my hand wildly) and our revision (When I told him the good news, he looked at me in disbelief; then he burst into a smile, shaking my hand wildly) lies in the change from a coordinated to a subordinated grammatical structure. The first version has four clauses (I told, he looked, he smiled, he shook), and each is independent. The revision has put the first thought into the background by changing it into a subordinate clause, prefixing the conjunction when to suggest an earlier time and therefore condition. That sets the stage for the next clause to stand as the result of that condition (he looked at me in disbelief as a result of my telling him the good news), and that slight grammatical reworking has brought a new dimension to the scene; now there’s depth to the ideas, and depth brings interest. Likewise in the last clause, where the revision has presented the thought of shaking my hand in a participial phrase, also a subordinated structure. Once again the intent is to point to the circumstances that surrounded the more central action of bursting into a smile, surely the most significantly revealing moment in the scene.
And finally we should note that those two simple changes have improved not only the logic of the original sentence, but its rhetorical shape as well. The first and last subordinate clauses enclose two independent clauses, and this produces a sentence design called chiasmus, a crisscross arrangement that heightens the reader’s interest with a tang of unbeknownst design and hidden spirit. And isn’t that just like life? Something’s always going on behind the scenes.