Writing Toward the Specific

In an earlier post (Neater, Lighter, Quicker), we looked at a troublesome first-draft sentence which we improved by paring down its verbs and correcting some punctuation. I did not have space there to explain some other changes made to the sentence and I would like to discuss those here.

This was the original sentence: The argument crystalized and froze the boy’s psychological development which led to a breakdown in his education and homelife and interfered with his healthy psychological growth. And this was the first revision: The argument froze the boy’s psychological development, which led in turn to more troubles at home and difficulties at school, all interfering with his healthy psychological growth. Let’s look more closely now at the section that begins with the relative pronoun which. We have noted already that a comma before this relative pronoun is all important because the antecedent is not properly development, the noun immediately preceding the relative pronoun, but the idea of freezing that development, which is brought into the picture by the main verb froze. Commas cut, and one is necessary right here to separate the likely antecedent from the pronoun and keep the logic straight. The comma, then, signals that correct reference to the reader.

The other major change we made in this same relative clause, however, is not so much grammatical as rhetorical. The original used two abstract nouns, education and homelife. Nouns may be roughly classified into two large groups, concrete and abstract. Concrete nouns name things we perceive with our senses and abstract nouns name ideas, things we can perceive only with our mind. Concrete nouns are usually shorter, and abstract nouns often longer, ending frequently in suffixes like –tion, –ness, and –ity. But not always, which is why I say they may be roughly classified so. If, for example, that person over there is your friend, is the noun friend concrete? You may say, of course, because you see him, but you see a person, an individual, a man; a friend points to the value of friendship found in the friend, and values are abstract because they are a matter of our mind. Such logical distinctions come to bear on the stylistic choices we have to make, and different answers are possible. But considering them will hone our skills of perception and improve our writing and thinking. In the sentence we are revising here, though, there is no question; both education and homelife are clearly abstract, and settling with them the writer has missed a chance at writing a more powerful sentence.

Because good, clear, strong writing depends on saying exactly what we mean, looking for abstract nouns which we can convert to concrete ones is an important technique in revising. But that being true, it is not also true to say that if we could finally eliminate every abstract noun we found, we’d have the best composition possible. The problem is not that we use abstract nouns; it’s that we use too many of them. Some subjects, like the psychological one from which we take our example, are inherently more abstract than others; psychology, after all, is a matter of the psyche, the mind (or at least the mind conceived empirically). We may reasonably expect more abstractions in such a science, but we may also expect that such writers will specify things where they can in order to embody their high thoughts. And that, really, is the ideal of good writers and thinkers both: to think abstractly and express concretely.

So if we regard the two abstract nouns education and homelife each as a label on a box, we may reasonably ask, what’s in the box? In education, we found difficulties at school, and in homelife we found troubles at home. The nouns difficulties and troubles are plural, and although they both are generalities and still not very specific, they are in their own right concrete nouns, because an abstract noun can only be singular: I may tell you that kindness, an abstraction, is a virtue, but I will thank you for your kindnesses, your concrete acts which embodied that abstraction. And by then attaching an adjectival phrase to each, difficulties at school and troubles at home, we have made an attempt to be more specific in a context where being too specific might itself not be the right choice. For if we assume that this sentence appeared at the opening of a longer document, its purpose was introductory, to tell readers what was to come as they continued on. In that context, to be so specific as to say which led in turn to fighting constantly with his father and brother, and to bullying classmates every day would have focused attention exclusively on these acts when other difficulties and troubles abounded. Our revision, then, took the middle path.

And that is the kind of decision we must expect regularly to make in our revising. The two most important questions to keep in mind in both beginning and revising a document are who is my audience? and what is my purpose? The answers to these questions will control our revisions, and help us make choices—some quite subtle—that will bring our work closer to the goal of matching form to content.


A Passage from Saul Bellow’s The Victim


Before the author Saul Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976 for what the Foundation called “the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work,” he had written a novel entitled The Victim, which the critic Lionel Trilling described as “a work of extraordinary achievement” (A Company of Readers, The Free Press, 2001, p. 100). “It was striking in its conception,” Trilling continued, “and it was marked by an originality of observation and a vivacity of moral insight.” In reading that novel lately, one such passage of original observation caught my attention as instructive for both writers and readers.

The passage illustrates what results from the judicious choice and use of verbs. As you read this passage of four sentences, think of the second and third sentences as transitional from the events named in the first and the scene painted broadly in the fourth. The very different mood you feel between action and description is caused by the verbs Bellow chose and how he employed them. The central character, Leventhal, has just returned home to his apartment:

He flung away his hat and his jacket, pulled off his shoes, and went to open the windows and push aside the curtains. It had turned into a beautiful night. The air was trembling and splendid. The moon had come out; there were wide-spaced stars, and small clouds pausing and then spinning as the cool gusts broke through the heat. (Saul Bellow, The Victim, Viking Press, 1956, p. 66]

That first sentence comprises a balanced sentence, with the conjunction and serving as the fulcrum, twelve words on one side, ten on the other. We are with Leventhal as he enters his apartment, in the midst of all he is doing, because every act we are told of, with the exception of one, is transitive: four of the five verbs have objects, and so the character’s moves name direct results. The two verbs of the first half of the sentence are phrasal, meaning the verbs work with adverbs, which together target a direct object: he flung away hat and jacket, and pulled off his shoes. Read the sentence aloud and you’ll hear the momentum building in the cadence these phrasal verbs create. And then in the second half of that same first sentence, the two verbs that name objects, open the windows and push aside the curtains are infinitives for the intransitive verb went. That single intransitive verb is what accounts for the briskness we feel as we follow the character. We are moving, almost rushing, because we are unobstructed now by any direct object—until we reach the purpose of our going: to open windows and push aside curtains, again both transitive actions that bring termination and purpose.

What has ended now is the character’s arrival home, and what ensues is the peace he feels there. Neither of the two verbs of the second and third transitional sentences, had turned and was, is transitive, and so we rightly sense an impression rather than an impact: a beautiful night and splendid air. That night and air englobe a new scene of objects, the moon and stars and clouds, and the rush and bang of our arrival gives way to an expansive, surrounding peace. The moon is night’s light, its own illumination only a reflection of the only brilliance there really is, now far away for a time. And that leaves the stars, not merely stars but wide-spaced stars, and this marks again the contrast between the tight, almost concussive transitive action of the first sentence and the encompassing, open peace within which such commotion was occurring. Only one transitive action occurs after the first sentence of this passage, again in the form of a phrasal verb: cool gusts broke through the heat, and that action has not a human agent filled with intent, but a natural one, simply being.

Our best writers provoke such reflections because they have worried over, consciously or not, the structure of their composition. Grammar is sometimes compared to geometry, a measuring of verbal configurations. That comparison is apt, and when applied to the best of our literature, can draw out unexpected insights from the shape and design of an accomplished author’s language.


Neater, Lighter, Quicker

Let’s look at one sentence very closely to see how it works and doesn’t work. Imagine a psychologist writing about a young patient. The writer is making interesting, indeed moving, observations, but this first draft is overwritten, obstructing the free flow of her sympathetic attention: The argument crystalized and froze the boy’s psychological development which led to a breakdown in his education and homelife and interfered with his healthy psychological growth. How can we change the structure of this draft sentence to sharpen its force?

We can see the sentence in halves, the first as an independent clause with two verbs (The argument crystalized and froze the boy’s psychological development), and the second as a subordinate clause with two verbs (which led to a breakdown in his education and homelife and interfered with his healthy psychological growth). We generally define a clause as a group of words with a subject and a verb, so to say that each of these clauses has two verbs might sound incorrect. But a more accurate definition of a clause is a group of words with a subject and a predicate. The predicate is that part of a statement which is saying something about the subject, and we might very well wish to assert more than one action about the same subject. That is what is going on here. In the first half of the sentence, the subject argument undertook two actions, crystalized and froze, and in the second half, this crystalizing and freezing led and interfered with the boy’s growth. When a predicate has, like this, more than one verb for the same subject, it is called a compound predicate, and for purposes of analysis we may regard the two verbs as making up one more elaborate predication about the same subject.

But elaboration can overwork itself into embroidery, and so it is good practice when we find ourselves writing a compound predicate to ask whether we are making a distinction without a difference. To crystalize something and to freeze it are both kinds of solidifying, and it is likely that the writer was thinking about the hardening effect the argument had had on the boy, and wanted to thread the picture tightly for the reader by choosing a more descriptive verb. That she did well by writing crystalized, but she then threaded the same part of the fabric again by adding the second verb froze. That kind of verbal overstitching is called doubling, and we are most prone to double our assertions in a first draft, where we are more often composing with our conversational voice. Less, however, is usually more in the written statement.

We cannot take this adage of less is more too literally, though, especially in matters of punctuation. The second half of our sentence begins with the relative pronoun which, and the writer has chosen not to include a comma before it. That choice brings us to the delicate topic of what is called the general reference of pronouns. A pronoun must have an antecedent, the noun to which the pronoun refers, and when the true antecedent of the pronoun is not the immediately preceding noun, we must insert a comma between the two to tell the reader just that. What it is that ultimately led to a breakdown in the boy’s education was not his psychological development, the noun immediately preceding the relative pronoun, but the fact that the argument crystalized that development. We should place a comma, then, before the pronoun which to break it from its likely antecedent, development, and associate it correctly with its logical one, the general idea implied by the action of crystalizing.

If we then reorder the events in the subordinate clause so that they move more naturally from home to school, and then transform the verb interfered into a participle, we have this as one possible revision: The argument froze the boy’s psychological development, which led in turn to more troubles at home and difficulties at school, all interfering with his healthy psychological growth. One word longer than the original, in fact, but structurally neater and for that, lighter and quicker.


Criticizing by Intention

To criticize—in the good sense of the word—means to evaluate something according to its intention. Criticizing is part and parcel of revising a draft composition, and to the degree that no one knows better than we ourselves what we mean to say, we are our own best critics. Often, though, what we’ve written does not accord with what we had in mind, and just trying to begin all over again from scratch will not necessarily produce another sentence any better than the original. Another route is open, however, and that is to look closely at the construction of what we have written, evaluate it in light of our intention, and then recompose it.

Here’s a short passage from a student’s paper that can illustrate the technique; the first sentence sets the scene: Word of the record-breaking pitch traveled quickly. Tom had not been at the game, but watching it anxiously on television. His immediate reaction was to jump for joy. We can pass over the first sentence without comment, other than to say that the writer has correctly hyphenated the adjective phrase record-breaking to modify the noun pitch: a compound adjective standing before its noun is hyphenated.

Our attention pauses, though, at the second sentence when we read the verb phrase had not been. We should always confirm what is called the sequence of tenses when we find we’ve written a past perfect tense. This concept of tense sequence is meant to assure that we are narrating events in their correct chronological order (that is, as they actually happened), and the past perfect tense is meant to depict an action that occurred before another action in the past—even if the other action is spelled out in another sentence. The first clause of this second sentence (had not been) passes the test, on the assumption that the writer wanted to bring the reader back to a time before the pitch was thrown and before word of it traveled quickly. That’s good, because it suggests an uneasy tension about the unknown, which is then relieved in the third sentence.

What doesn’t work, though, is the second half of this second sentence: but watching it anxiously on television. The word but is a conjunction, and a conjunction introduces a clause, a group of words with a subject and verb. We can’t call these six words a clause, though, because watching is a participle, not a verb, and so it is not clear whether the writer had intended to assert a thought or describe a situation. If the former, he should have written but he had been watching it, employing again the past perfect tense to parallel the earlier had not been (although an argument for was watching could be made); but if the latter, he should have left out but and let watching begin a participial phrase: watching it anxiously on television.

But still we’re not home. Our first revision of Tom had not been at the game, but he had been watching it anxiously on television could be smoothed out by omitting the subject pronoun: Tom had not been at the game, but had been watching it anxiously on television. And our second revision, Tom had not been at the game, watching it anxiously on television, stumbles because of the lingering force of the negative adverb not, which implies a contrast or alternative. Our revision does, in fact, give an alternative, but we should add the adverb instead to make Tom’s choice clear: Tom had not been at the game, instead watching it anxiously on television.

Finally, the third sentence, which will brook no grammatical complaint but can be criticized on rhetorical grounds. When the verb to be is used with an infinitive (was to jump), we can often find what we really want to say hidden in the infinitive. The writer intends here ultimately to assert what Tom did, not what Tom felt (his immediate reaction) before he acted. Recognizing that, we can construct a grammatical balance of subordinate and independent clauses which both proportions the thoughts in clear images before the reader’s eye (the main idea in an independent clause and an attending thought in a subordinate clause) and expands the scene concretely: And when he saw the umpire signal the final strike, he leapt for joy.

We construct sentences by technique. We put words together into recognizable grammatical patterns, and in revision we test whether the arrangements we’ve created actually communicate what we intend. It is correct to say, I think, that revising has two sides: the exterior of grammatical production and the interior of our intentions. Our goal is to match the two.


Seeing Groups of Words

Early on in the study of grammar, we come upon a concept which is essential to understand: that a group of words can act as a single part of speech. This one idea will in one fell swoop reduce the complexity of a sentence we want to change, because we’re no longer trying to account for every last word, but we’re seeing instead the larger and fewer sections of phrases and clauses, each of which stands as a single part of speech. Here’s how it works.

Let’s begin with this simple sentence: We took a walk in the woods yesterday. Revising often means rearranging, so if we want to consider how else we might present the ideas of this sentence to our readers, do we assume first that we are dealing with eight individual words? That, long experience tells me, is the first mistake most beginners (and those beginning again) make in trying to understand the grammar of a sentence. It’s true that every single word must have a role to play, but not every role is of the same importance at the same time. Some words carry an obvious meaning: we means a number of us, and woods means that dense stand of trees over there. But a or in? We want, certainly, to be able to understand ultimately how every word is functioning in a sentence, but not necessarily all at once, and certainly not as we first approach a sentence to revise.

So instead of preparing to do battle with each individual word in the sentence, let’s try welcoming it with a wider analytical embrace. Read it first from capital letter to period, and then divide it into the two large sections every sentence must have at least one of: subject and predicate. Thus, this first division of We | took a walk in the woods yesterday, would show us that, after the subject we, the bulk of the statement lies in the predicate, that part of a clause which includes the verb and all the other elements that build out the circumstances of the scene. We can count the predicate here, though, not as seven words, but as two single words plus two phrases: took (a walk) (in the woods) yesterday. A phrase is a group of words without a subject and verb, and by parenthesizing the phrases like this, we reduce our project to understand the structure of this sentence from seven steps to four.

The first phrase we encounter is simple enough. The indefinite article a is an adjective that works with the noun walk, and so we can quickly and correctly group those two words together and see that this phrase stands as the direct object of the transitive verb took: two words, one phrase, one grammatical function. The next word, in, is a preposition, and we know that a preposition must always have an object, which will most often be the first noun after the preposition. A preposition begins a phrase which ends with its object, and that phrase will include any word between the preposition and object as well. Thus, in the woods is a prepositional phrase, and since it—the phrase in its entirety, not any single word of the phrase alone—answers the question where?, we understand that element to be an adverbial phrase. Finally, we see the single word yesterday, which answers the question when?, and so we see another adverb, this time in the form of a single word.

Again, by seeing a group of words acting as one syntactical unit (the fancy word for that is syntagma), we make it much easier to uncouple the components and rearrange them to change the manner of our statement. By seeing the four words in the woods yesterday really as two elements (one phrase and one single word), we give ourselves the chance to consider putting the temporal adverb yesterday at the beginning of the sentence: Yesterday we took a walk in the woods. Or perhaps after the direct object: We took a walk yesterday in the woods. Or if we are in a more reflective mood, between the verb and its object: We took yesterday a walk in the woods. Or if we are drafting a poem, perhaps even this: We yesterday took a walk in the woods.

All of these choices present themselves to our revising eye when we can see structure. Here, we have not done anything directly with the prepositional phrase in the woods, but we have done many things with the single word yesterday, which came to our attention after seeing the prepositional phrase separate from it. But that prepositional phrase itself opens even more possibilities. If we wanted to stay in our poetic mood to see what might be seen in a very different (but very real) frame of mind, we could come next upon an entirely new height of structural possibilities: In the woods yesterday, we took a walk. Or, We yesterday in the woods took a walk. Or even, A walk we took yesterday in the woods.

After studying grammar to write more clearly, we can study it to reflect more deeply on what we perceive in the world about us, moving from factual statement to poetic evocation. Both, however, rely on structure, the heart of the art of language.