One of the things that make writing difficult is that we forget we’re really involved in three projects at once, not just one. When we think about improving our writing, we probably think first of grammar—that’s the subject that has traditionally (or maybe I should say had traditionally) been regarded as the foundation, the dragon on the path no one could afford to ignore. Many of us (certainly I too) believe that’s true, but when we want to put our ideas into words, when we want to engage someone’s attention and convince them our ideas make sense, we need more
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
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
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
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
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
A writer’s bricks and mortar are words and grammar. This is why it is important to set aside time every day to read, the regularity being more important than the amount. Just as there is no musician who does not listen to music nor any painter who does not study the work of other painters, so there is no writer who does not read—for ideas, for grammar, and for vocabulary. In an earlier post I talked about the practice of keeping a commonplace book, which is a record of your reading. It is the place where you transcribe short passages,
It’s a curious thing: we’re a culture that prizes science highly, yet when it comes to language, the very instrument of our scientific culture, we are often reluctant to learn something of its own science, grammar. The result? We take the long way home. Consider, for example, the common problem writers seem to have in deciding between every day and everyday. Do I walk my dog every day or everyday? One way to decide the issue, of course, is to say it doesn’t matter: who in the world could possibly care about a matter so minute, especially when the reader
We agree, I hope, that writers work in words. Words are the writer’s raw material, and like the sculptor’s clay, words have to be shaped into meaning. Choosing words and arranging them is the sum and substance of the practice of writing. This is why some of the fine old grammars of English said that the whole subject can be studied neatly under two headings: the parts of speech and syntax. We’ve discussed here before what is meant by the parts of speech. Grammar, at least the grammar of English and many other languages, works by the presumption of naming
There are usually many paths up the same mountain and rarely only one way of doing things. Some will say that rules and measures weaken our creativity as we write, and others maintain that ignoring the rules of grammar and composition will produce only anarchy (what a teacher of mine once derisively referred to as idiosyncratic writing). I take a position between these two extremes: creativity and the abandon it sometimes requires is what we need to get started on a piece; from this arises our draft. But rules and the designs they produce are part of an analytical frame
What does it mean, really, to think clearly? It’s an important question because writing and thinking are so closely associated. To ask what thinking clearly means is also to ask what writing clearly means. If we confine our discussion here to expository prose—the explanatory composition most of us undertake most of the time in emails and letters and reports—writing and thinking clearly mean making distinctions and showing connections, seeing something for what it is and showing how it stands in relation to something else. If it is true as the philosophers say that “life flows,” then making distinctions and showing
Many years ago, a friend of mine had a particularly unpleasant experience on a flight to Europe. She wrote the airline a letter, and they made amends by sending her a voucher for a free flight in the future. The question for us is, why did I just use the verb wrote in the last sentence instead of has written? Both forms, wrote and has written, are past tenses of the verb write. Both direct the reader to an action, and both place that action in a time before the present moment. The difference between the two, though, has to