Revising By Clauses

Grammar books often define a sentence as a complete thought, but that maxim, true as it oftentimes is, might not be good enough if we want to revise our work more carefully.

Let’s say, for example, we wrote these two sentences in our first draft: One friend of mine builds log cabins for a living, and another sells real estate. They both live in Maine and they often work together. In revision, we determine that they sound clumsy; we sense that something is not balanced correctly, and suspect that the two sentences could be combined into one. But how?

Here’s where revising by clauses can offer some practical help. A clause is a group of words with a subject and a predicate (where the verb is), and every clause—here’s the important part—expresses a thought. So if a sentence has two clauses (and each of these two sentences does), then we’re actually dealing with four thoughts as we revise, not two sentences. For my money, that’s what we want to see—the logical skeleton of sentences, because with a picture of that structure, we can know what adjustment needs to be made.

So the structure of the two sentence looks like this. The vertical bar separates subject from predicate:

friend | builds log cabins

another | sells real estate

they | live in Maine

they | work together

And with that quick and simple analysis, we can see that the clumsiness we felt is caused in part by the order in which the four thoughts are presented: first the specific details of what our friends do for a living, then to where they live, and then back again to their work—from specific to general to specific again. So if we simply reorder the thoughts to move methodically from the general to the specific, we produce this:

Two friends of mine live in Maine and they often work together; one sells real estate and the other builds log cabins.

And if we want to tighten the assertion a bit, we can convert the first clause to a phrase, eliminating one clause all together:

Two friends of mine in Maine often work together; one sells real estate and the other builds log cabins.

And if we really want to get fancy, we can change the semicolon to a colon to propel the details in the second half of the sentence:

Two friends of mine in Maine often work together: one sells real estate and the other builds log cabins.

All these design changes result from a little knowledge of sentence structure, and this gives us much more control over the thoughts that erupt in our first draft. Creation is always messy, but our ideas have to take a certain shape before our readers can make sense easily and accurately of what we’re saying. Sentences are often too large a design element to handle deftly; that’s why it’s better to keep an eye first on the clauses that make up our sentences.

Backstitching

Most of us most of the time write what is called expository prose, an expensive name for something quite common. Exposition is the presentation of facts, and expository writing, as opposed to description or argumentation, is nothing more (or less) than explaining something clearly and methodically to someone else.

One principle of expository prose is coherence: what you’re presenting and explaining must be arranged sentence by sentence in such a way that the resulting ideas in a paragraph stick together, that you allow no gaps where irrelevant notions can slip in. On this word coherence a teacher of mine in college once told us to think of how the two sides of the fabric Velcro cling together, or how a bur sticks unforgivingly to your clothes. Such should be the arrangement of sentences one to the next.

A fine illustration of this appears in the first paragraph of Richard Manning’s A Good House: Building a Life on the Land, 1993:

It is a measure of the confusion of our times that the simplest words tease out the most complicated questions. Words like “good” and “house.” What do we mean by these? A year of my life turned on this question, a year in which I built my own house.

The four sentences of this short introductory paragraph are very nicely sewn together. The first word of the second sentence, Words, refers back to the phrase the simplest words in the first sentence. The pronoun these in the third sentence refers back to good and house in the second sentence. And the phrase on this question in the last sentence refers back to the entire third sentence which is itself the question. (And notice too that the second occurrence of the word year in the last sentence refers back to the same word earlier in the same sentence, extending its meaning.)

I call this close arrangement of words and ideas backstitching, and I take the term from a particular movement of a threaded needle in the craft of sewing that reaches back to the previous stitch before it advances to the next one. If we regard a word or phrase as a stitch, then we can see in Manning’s paragraph how referring back to a related word or idea in the previous sentence is the backstitch, from which the author can now progress on to the next idea in the next sentence. Backstitching is a way to help ensure we are meeting the principle of cohesion in a paragraph sentence by sentence.

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If you’re interested in private instruction in English grammar and writing, please visit my website, writingsmartly.com, for more information about my work, or email me directly at ultimo@writingsmartly.com. I would be happy to arrange a free consultation in person or by Zoom video conferencing to discuss what you’d like to achieve.

Keeping a Commonplace Book

Not enough is said, I think, about the importance of regular reading and its practical effect on our writing. The connection between the two comes as a surprise to many of my students: isn’t reading what we do after we’ve written something? In fact, reading is what we should be doing before we write.

Because every word is so important in communicating one’s thoughts clearly and persuasively, accomplished writers understand the necessity of establishing a daily routine of private reading. It is not possible to improve one’s writing without reading––reading slowly and reflectively, with an eye on the structure and an ear to the sound of other good writers’ language. The art of writing depends, as do all arts, on both knowing the principles and seeing those principles demonstrated in the work of other serious practitioners.

A commonplace book is a record of your private reading (unlike a journal, which is a record of your own thoughts and writing). It need be nothing more elaborate than a simple notebook where you transcribe
a sentence or short passage that has caught your attention for some reason, either for its ideas or for its structure. An author you’re reading, for example, might have written a particularly clear explanation of the complicated world of health care or an unusually vivid description of a garden in full summer bloom. Whatever the subject, some one phrase or sentence or paragraph arrested your attention; by transcribing it attentively to your commonplace book (and ideally speaking it aloud as you write it down), you put yourself in the company of good writing, allowing yourself to be affected by the grammatical structure, vocabulary, and rhythm of the passage. We learn by watching closely.

There’s only one thing you can’t forget in keeping a commonplace book: every passage you transcribe, from the merest phrase to the substantial paragraph, must be put in quotation marks and must be followed by the author’s name, the title of the work, and the page number. This is just right and simple courtesy to others and their work, and it may just save you years later from facing the difficult but perhaps quite probable question: did I write that?


If you’re interested in private instruction in English grammar and writing, please visit my website, writingsmartly.com, for more information about my work, or email me directly at ultimo@writingsmartly.com. I would be happy to arrange a free consultation in person or by Zoom video conferencing to discuss what you’d like to achieve.

Life Moves

Here is a beautifully written passage about the ocean coast by Rachel Carson, the pioneering and influential American nature writer. Carson is probably best known for her book Silent Spring, which in the early 1960s was instrumental in bringing attention to widening environmental dangers. The passage here is from her work The Edge of the Sea. I offer it as a model of fine writing, and as an illustration of a grammatical point I will make a few comments about:

The edge of the sea is a strange and beautiful place. All through the long history of Earth it has been an area of unrest where waves have broken heavily against the land, where the tides have pressed forward over the continents, receded, and then returned. For no two successive days is the shore line precisely the same. Not only do the tides advance and retreat in their eternal rhythms, but the level of the sea itself is never at rest. It rises or falls as the glaciers melt or grow, as the floor of the deep ocean basins shifts under its increasing load of sediments, or as the earth’s crust along the continental margins warps up or down in adjustment to strain and tension. Today a little more land may belong to the sea, tomorrow a little less. Always the edge of the sea remains an elusive and indefinable boundary.

Writing like this is not a quick read, nor should it be. But if we aspire to write more vigorously, it behooves us to examine how good writing is put together (and that is what the word composition literally means) so we can learn to do it ourselves. Understanding structure can be the answer to a lot of difficulties we have.

One such observation we can make here is about what can be called the dynamism of the language. The paragraph contains 18 verbs, of which only five (about one-quarter) state some kind of identity: is (used three times), has been, and remains; the other 14 state an action of some sort: have broken, rises, shifts. This preponderance of verbs of action gives the passage its vigor; the paragraph is alive because it’s moving, things are happening: waves have broken and tides have pressed; glaciers melt and the earth’s crust warps. When we’ve finished reading, we feel as if we too had been swept up in all this natural unrest.

To analyze our verbs like this—and it’s nothing more complicated than asking ourselves in revising whether we can write what the subject is doing rather than what it simply is—can quickly transform our language from a static photo to a dynamic film. Strong, brisk language is more interesting because it stays close to life, and life is movement and movement is action.


If you’re interested in private instruction in English grammar and writing, please visit my website, writingsmartly.com, for more information about my work, or email me directly at ultimo@writingsmartly.com. I would be happy to arrange a free consultation in person or by Zoom video conferencing to discuss what you’d like to achieve.

Remarkable

It is remarkable to realize just what language is trying to do. Think about a situation you found yourself in recently, and then think about trying to relate that experience to someone else. Almost any circumstance you can remember involved countless things—all the almost innumerable objects and events and emotions and thoughts that made the experience what it was. Realizing how complex even a simple everyday experience is can stun the mind, and sometimes even overwhelm us to the conclusion that it’s just not possible to put it all into words. And in that despair, we settle with just giving our general impressions, not making sharp descriptions or exact explanations.

But there’s a difference between complexity and hopeless complication, and the arts of language enter the stage to say, “No problem, we’ve got a word for every last thing you experienced in that situation. All you have to do is take a perspective on what you’re trying to relate, name what you see, and say what one thing has to do with another.” Think about that for a moment: a word for everything last thing you experienced. That really is remarkable. Now you’ll have some serious philosophical problems to explain if you take that statement literally, but there is nonetheless a lot of truth to it. After all, writing involves words, so what are most of those words doing if not identifying what we see in a circumstance, real or imagined? Some words, like nouns, name things; some words, like verbs, name actions; and still others, small but important words like prepositions and conjunctions, name how things are connected together. And all these words work together in a sentence to define—to put a border around—a portion of our experience of being alive in the world. Putting a word to something—putting just the right word in just the right place—carries an experience out of our memory or imagination and into the mind of someone else. Words follow our direct experience of life, and they have the remarkable (or should we say almost magical) ability to recreate what we have experienced in order to share a portion of it with someone else.

And it’s right there, in defining and delimiting our direct and seemingly unlimited experience, that language does for us what it does so well. We might think of words as units of energy that create and carry meaning so that someone else can feel the effect of our thoughts and emotions. When we employ language, we’re trying to give someone else a piece of our mind, as it were. And what is truly remarkable is that the complexity and richness of human experience can be caught for a moment in nouns and verbs and all the rest of the apparatus of grammar and thinking. Far from overwhelming us, that should inspire us to become ever more skillful in the arts of language, just as we would with any other art we’d like to use and enjoy.



If you’re interested in private instruction in English grammar and writing, please visit my website, writingsmartly.com, for more information about my work, or email me directly at ultimo@writingsmartly.com. I would be happy to arrange a free consultation in person or by Zoom video conference in to discuss what you’d like to achieve.