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Be a Better Writer--A FEW LOOSE ENDS

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer--A FEW LOOSE ENDS

Postby glorybee » Sat May 31, 2014 8:24 pm

This lesson will address three questions that popped up in the “Breaking the Rules” lessons of the past two weeks. The topics here aren’t really rules, but they’re definitely writing situations that you may be likely to encounter: long paragraphs, long sentences, and use of adjectives and adverbs.

Steve asked me to cover the when, where, why, and how of long paragraphs. A little bit of research turned up this quote: “[Paragraph] length is therefore a function of appearance and visual relief."(Stephen R. Covey, Style Guide for Business and Technical Communication, 5th ed. FT Press and Pearson Education, 2012). So according to Covey, short paragraphs are easier on readers. I agree; in our Twitter-fied world, readers’ eyes weary quickly of large blocks of text.

Nevertheless, a paragraph has to contain what it has to contain. If you’re writing nonfiction and your paragraph covers one complex topic, it will necessarily be lengthy. Knowing your audience will be the key here. If you’re quite sure that your audience is highly motivated readers who are as interested in the subject as you are, then a lengthy paragraph will probably be fine.

Similarly, if you’re writing fiction, there may be times when, for literary effect, you decide to write a paragraph that is considerably longer than the average. A long paragraph will help to establish the pace of that particular scene; I can envision a chapter, for example, where a stream of consciousness from a character might take up an entire page or more.

However, every site that I found on this topic (mostly writers’ guidelines from academic institutions) recommended that writers avoid extremely long paragraphs. The definitions of extremely long paragraphs varied, but the consensus seems to be that after 3 – 6 sentences, or 100 – 200 words, writers should probably look for places to break the long paragraph into a few smaller ones. Of course, paragraphs should cover only one topic, but often there are sub-topics that can happily live in paragraphs of their own. The important thing—in any type of writing—is flow. Imagine, if you will, the bell curve that you probably first encountered in a math class. At one end of the bell—the skinny end on the left—should be very short paragraphs. At the other skinny end are the very long paragraphs. In the middle, where most of the body of the bell is found, should be paragraphs of average length. So when you’re writing, mix them up. If you find that you’ve written a very long paragraph, imagine that someone might ask you “why is that paragraph so long?” If you can’t come up with a legitimate reason, get out the paragraph cleaver and chop it up. Are you still reading this? It’s killing me to write this long paragraph; they’re just not my style.

***
Moving on—Catrina asked for guidance about long sentences. She said that she loves to write them, but when she goes back to edit her work, she often breaks them up into several shorter sentences.

Pretty much everything that I just wrote about long paragraphs applies to long sentences, too. It’s all about flow and function. To have good flow, a piece of writing should have a mixture of sentence lengths—a few short, a few long, and mostly sentences of medium lengths.

I should note, too, that not all long sentences are run-on sentences, but if you like to write long sentences, be sure that you’ve punctuated all of the phrases and clauses correctly. You can find some great examples of long sentences in literature here.

I recommend that you do as Catrina does—write long sentences in the first draft, and then edit them in the second. Keep a few of the really good ones.

***

Finally, Steve wanted to know if and when there are times when it’s good to use plenty of adjectives and adverbs, since the prevailing advice of editors (well, okay, of me) is to favor the well-chosen single noun or verb over the ordinary-noun-plus-adejective or ordinary-verb-plus-adverb combination.

One of the main considerations there is genre. The genre that springs to mind is romance, where a certain amount of purple prose is expected. And travel writing (you know, those magazines in airplanes that describe destinations you’ll never be able to afford)—you’ve got to use lots of descriptors there. I suppose there are genres in which the expectation is for plenty of adverbs, too—maybe one of you will suggest what those genres might be?

When I’m editing, I’ll let a writer keep an adjective or an adverb if it adds new information to the noun or verb it modifies. Thus:

He murmured softly in her ear. I’d slash ‘softly’ there—it’s redundant. There’s no other way to murmur but softly.

I was attacked by tiny gnats. ‘Tiny’ isn’t necessary, since all gnats are tiny.

BUT—

He murmured threateningly in her ear. Threats aren’t usually murmured, so the addition of the adverb here helps to set the mood of this scene.

I was attacked by enormous gnats. Since gnats aren’t enormous, this is either hyperbole or science fiction. In either case, it tells the reader something more than just I was attacked by gnats.

***
Thoughts? Comments? Follow-up questions? Agree or disagree, it’s fine—this was a seat-of-my-pants lesson.
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Be a Better Writer--A FEW LOOSE ENDS

Postby swfdoc1 » Mon Jun 02, 2014 12:02 am

Jan, I LOVE your analogy of the bell curves for sentences and paragraphs. Most writing handbooks recommend an average sentence length, although the recommendations are not uniform. I remember seeing 18, 23, and 25; and I used 23 with my students. For writing that is short enough, I recommend (and practice what I preach) actually calculating the average length. Then, per the bell curve, make sure you deliberately have some very short and some very long. For me, paragraph length needs to be about BOTH number of sentences and number of words. I have seen some very effective long paragraphs (by word count) when the paragraph was 1 long sentence, 2 long sentences, and 1 long & 1 short.

I agree that paragraph length—according to the dictates of current taste—is largely driven by appearance and flow. Interestingly, great flow can overcome the need for white space.

Here’s something I wrote in response to one of your earlier lessons that addresses the prior two paragraphs:

In the meantime and to illustrate the ART of varying sentence length, I’m posting a link to the opening of volume one of William Manchester’s The Last Lion. Manchester is a master of long AND short sentences AND of varying them with great effect.

Once you click on the link, page down until the text starts. Read until the lion symbol that ends the first section (a manageable amount of text). If you bog down in the third paragraph, just persevere—it will be worth it. Here’s the link: The Last Lion


Another great long sentence is from Justice Scalia’s dissenting opinion in a 1987 Supreme Court case, Edwards v. Aguillard, in which he is ridiculing the idea of knowing a legislator's motivation, and is widely cited as an outstanding long sentence. The middle sentence is the long one:

In the present case, for example, a particular legislator need not have voted for the Act either because he wanted to foster religion or because he wanted to improve education. He may have thought the bill would provide jobs for his district, or may have wanted to make amends with a faction of his party he had alienated on another vote, or he may have been a close friend of the bill's sponsor, or he may have been repaying a favor he owed the majority leader, or he may have hoped the Governor would appreciate his vote and make a fundraising appearance for him, or he may have been pressured to vote for a bill he disliked by a wealthy contributor or by a flood of constituent mail, or he may have been seeking favorable publicity, or he may have been reluctant to hurt the feelings of a loyal staff member who worked on the bill, or he may have been settling an old score with a legislator who opposed the bill, or he may have been mad at his wife who opposed the bill, or he may have been intoxicated and utterly unmotivated when the vote was called, or he may have accidentally voted “yes” instead of “no,” or, of course, he may have had (and very likely did have) a combination of some of the above and many other motivations. To look for the sole purpose of even a single legislator is probably to look for something that does not exist.


No problem reading the long sentence, right? Yet it is over 200 words long! (The paragraph started with 3 more sentences.)

By the way, I think Scalia’s “or”s SIMULTANEOUSLY contributed to the readability AND made the possibilities seems endless, as per my comment in this lesson: viewtopic.php?f=67&t=38029&start=15

Jan, I also think your idea about genres being significant in deciding how many adjectives and adverbs to use is a great insight.

Another situation in which it might be OK to use a lot of adjectives and adverbs is (some) parallel constructions. For example: The landscape was a virtual painter’s palate: green grass, red poppies, blue sky [etc. as far as the writing (and editor) thought this could continue].

I think in other situations, parallel constructions might even be OK with repeated adverb, adjective, noun sequences . For example: My first impressions of Senator Smith were these: a toxically immoral agenda, an incessantly nagging voice, yet a bewitchingly deceptive charisma. Of course, these might work better with all three adverbs removed or with the first two adverbs removed (for a quasi-parallel construction). It seems to me—to go back to your idea about genres— these might work especially well in speeches: American workers possess calloused hands, optimistic visions, and big hearts.

Speaking of speeches, I thought about how much of the Gettysburg Address is adverbs and adjectives, broadly defined. When some style manuals and editors say “don’t use many adverbs and adjectives, they really only seem to mean attributive adjectives, e.g. “the UGLY dog”; but better ones explicitly address predicative adjectives, too, e.g. “the dog is UGLY.” However, even the first category of manuals and editors will often advise the avoidance of linking verbs like “was”; so you end up at the same place. Next, we should remember that adjective/adjectival phrases and clauses function as adjectives; and adverb/adverbial phrase and clauses function as adverbs.

If we use a red font for all these adjectives, adverbs, clauses, and phrases in the Gettysburg Address (subject to the caveat that I was not very careful), we get this:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


Even if we discounted the phrases and clauses qua phrases and clauses, we would have to add back in the adjectives and adverbs that they contain.

BTW, if some of the highlighting seems odd to folks, remember, there is such a thing as a possessive ADJECTIVE (e.g., our) and a demonstrative ADJECTIVE (e.g., that) even though elsewhere these same words can be personal and demonstrative PRONOUNS.

As far as “agree or disagree,” I don’t think I’ve disagreed with anything. I just wrote this much because you really started me thinking about all this. But, I’d love to hear your responses, including disagreements.
Steve
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Re: Be a Better Writer--A FEW LOOSE ENDS

Postby glorybee » Mon Jun 02, 2014 2:53 pm

All good stuff, Steve. I always appreciate your contributions and insights.

Anyone else?
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Re: Be a Better Writer--A FEW LOOSE ENDS

Postby Shann » Mon Jun 02, 2014 10:55 pm

The one adjective/adverb I often see, and almost always encourage people to cut, is very. He ran very fast. Use He dashed, sprinted, or darted instead. The same holds true for words like really and so. What do you think Jan, is very ever your top choice or even a time when you would use it?
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Re: Be a Better Writer--A FEW LOOSE ENDS

Postby glorybee » Tue Jun 03, 2014 1:04 am

Good question, Shann. As an intensifier, it's true that there's often a more accurate word than "very + [word]." However, I'm reluctant to say that "very" should be avoided altogether. I just checked in something that I'm working on, and while I use "very" infrequently, I have it in a few places where I think it's just the right word:

...a feeling very much like love...

...she stood very still while the bats flew overhead...

...hot. So very hot...

...the very thought made her seethe...

In each of those cases, I'm not sure there's a word or combination of words that would do as well as "very." I'm sure that it would be the same for "really" and "so." As with so much that I cover in these classes, there's often a general principle (avoid unnecessary adjectives in favor of stronger nouns) that's good to take hold of, but it's best perhaps not to adhere slavishly to it. There will always be an exception.

But you've got me thinking, because it's very :D possible that I'm wrong (happens all the time). If you were editing the above phrases, what would you suggest in place of "very?"
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Re: Be a Better Writer--A FEW LOOSE ENDS

Postby lish1936 » Tue Jun 03, 2014 7:54 am

Jan wrote:But you've got me thinking, because it's very :D possible that I'm wrong (happens all the time). If you were editing the above phrases, what would you suggest in place of "very?"


The question was addressed to Shann, but I was wondering about the use of negatives. Is "not unlikely that I'm wrong" too awkward? Other words might be "quite," or "highly."

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Re: Be a Better Writer--A FEW LOOSE ENDS

Postby glorybee » Tue Jun 03, 2014 8:12 am

Lillian, the 'not un-' construction has its place. It's a pretty subtle way of indicating nuanced opinion. For example, if you ask me how I liked attending my first professional basketball game, I might say "I was not unhappy to be there." That's not quite the same as saying "I was happy to be there," and you can infer that basketball might not be my first choice, but that perhaps I enjoyed the refreshments or the company there.

Very, so, quite, highly, and really all have their places, too. Unseasoned writers might tend to misuse them, with combinations like "really nice" or "so good" or "quite different." But I hesitate to make any sort of pronouncement like "don't use those words." Any word, in the pen of a good writer, can be made to say something precisely right.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--A FEW LOOSE ENDS

Postby lish1936 » Tue Jun 03, 2014 9:47 am

Jan, perhaps a rewriting might be:

...a feeling very much like love...

...a feeling reminiscent of love...

...she stood very still while the bats flew overhead...

...she froze while the bats flew overhead...

...hot. So very hot...

...hot. Sizzling hot...

...the very thought made her seethe...

(This one is the most difficult)...Just thinking about it made her seethe...



Jan wrote:"nuanced opinion."


I love this term. It also reminds me of what I hear when politicians answer questions. :D

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Re: Be a Better Writer--A FEW LOOSE ENDS

Postby glorybee » Tue Jun 03, 2014 10:52 am

lish1936 wrote:Jan, perhaps a rewriting might be:

...a feeling very much like love...

...a feeling reminiscent of love...

...she stood very still while the bats flew overhead...

...she froze while the bats flew overhead...

...hot. So very hot...

...hot. Sizzling hot...

...the very thought made her seethe...

(This one is the most difficult)...Just thinking about it made her seethe...



Jan wrote:"nuanced opinion."


I love this term. It also reminds me of what I hear when politicians answer questions. :D

Lillian


Lillian, all of your re-writes are perfectly acceptable. In each case, I think your re-write and my original phrase have slightly different nuances (there's that word again) of meaning. For example, your first suggestion

...a feeling reminiscent of love...

would work quite well if my character were remembering love. In the story, however, she's trying to manufacture love by her actions, and has achieved something close, but not quite there. In another story, I'd take your suggestion in a heartbeat, because 'reminiscent' is a lovely word.

I won't go through each of your suggestions, but you get the idea. Even a tiny word like 'very' can have inferred meanings that can change an entire sentence.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--A FEW LOOSE ENDS

Postby WriterFearNot » Tue Jun 03, 2014 12:04 pm

Different approaches work for different writers, and for me, I believe I would go bananas if I made myself count the number of words in a sentence, and/or the number of sentences in each paragraph. For me, it works best to write it the way I hear it, which usually works out to be long sentences and paragraphs. Then I go back and edit, scanning for "extra stuff" that is unnecessary to the piece. And, like someone else mentioned earlier, when I go back to edit, I usually cut the sentences and paragraphs shorter. I scan the document for variety and flow. I also try to scan it for rhythm, but this is difficult for me because I do not have an ear for rhythm. I never count words in a sentence or sentences in a paragraph. That would drive me crazy. I sort of eyeball them and "feel" them out.

Regarding adjectives and adverbs, I agree with everything you said, Jan, and overall I believe that less is more.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--A FEW LOOSE ENDS

Postby Shann » Tue Jun 03, 2014 12:39 pm

I love the way you used the words very, Jan. I think it shows the purpose of the word and if editing those lines, I'm guessing I wouldn't even notice the word very. It is subtle. Some people might have written it was very subtle, and that would make me squirm. :D

As to the examples you gave, if I were to rewrite them, I would say:

a feeling much like love.

And maybe she stood still or perhaps motionless.

The hot one I get the idea of the very. If you hadn't had the first hot and just said very hot, then it would have made me squirm.

The last one I wouldn't to anything to it. I really :mrgreen: liked the way it flowed.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--A FEW LOOSE ENDS

Postby swfdoc1 » Tue Jun 03, 2014 2:30 pm

WriterFearNot wrote:Different approaches work for different writers, and for me, I believe I would go bananas if I made myself count the number of words in a sentence, and/or the number of sentences in each paragraph.


I agree that counting all this would be a pain, especially in a long piece. But I do think—especially if you are trying to get something published—the “rules” on sentence length and paragraph length should not be ignored. I know the lesson is on breaking the rules, but as Jan has pointed out, we should only break rules on purpose and (generally) only occasionally.

Fortunately, there is a solution. Use your word processor to do your counting. I use Microsoft Word, but I assume this tool is available in most word processors. In my version of Word, the easiest way is to start Spellchecker, then check the box for including grammar, then click on the button for options. From the dialog box that opens check the box for “Readability Statistics.”

There is usually at least one other way to turn on the statistics in any version of Word, if the steps for my version don't work for your version. Just google “Microsoft Word [your version]” and “readability statistics” and follow the directions.

After you’ve run Spellchecker, the statistics will be generated. And, of course, you can highlight one or a few paragraphs to spellcheck/generate statistics just on it/them.

Many people will find that their average sentence length (more often than average paragraph length) is way out of the range that publishers (or those, e.g., reading your writing in the workplace) are looking for.

BTW, if you are not used to having the grammar checker turned on, just remember, it will make mistakes, too, just like the spelling part of spellchecker. Also, when the "Options" dialog box opens, you can customize both the spelling features and the grammar features—at least in my version.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--A FEW LOOSE ENDS

Postby lish1936 » Tue Jun 03, 2014 3:34 pm

Jan wrote:In the story, however, she's trying to manufacture love by her actions, and has achieved something close, but not quite there.


Jan, I don't know why I'm obsessing over this because "very much like" may be the best way to write it. Next stop...psychiatrist. :lol: But my original word before I opted for "reminiscent" was "akin."

Last try :)

"a feeling very much like love..."..."a feeling akin to love."

Does that sound too stiff or too formal ?

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Re: Be a Better Writer--A FEW LOOSE ENDS

Postby WriterFearNot » Tue Jun 03, 2014 3:42 pm

Well, Steve, it looks like you may have converted me! I could never have pictured myself sitting and counting out my words and sentences, but when you mentioned the Readability Statistics tool, you got my attention.

I tested this tool out on a chapter I'm working on, and here were my results:
Sentences per paragraph: 3.6
Words per sentence: 9.3
Passive sentences: 1%
Flesch Reading Ease: 83.8
Flesch Kincaid Grade Level: 3.8

So I'm not sure what all this means, except that my writing is easily understood by 11 year olds (based on the reading ease score), and is at nearly fourth grade reading level (based on the grade level score). And these surprised me because I thought my writing was a little more sophisticated than that. I have no idea how this compares to the "industry requirements" because I've never looked them up, but I was happy to see that my passive sentence percentage was 1.

So I like this tool. I'm going to check it out more. Thanks for mentioning it. Question: is there a way to get straight to the readability statistics? It seems like I have to go through the entire spell check process before the score chart pops up, and that could become tedious for a long document.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--A FEW LOOSE ENDS

Postby glorybee » Tue Jun 03, 2014 3:49 pm

lish1936 wrote:
Jan wrote:In the story, however, she's trying to manufacture love by her actions, and has achieved something close, but not quite there.


Jan, I don't know why I'm obsessing over this because "very much like" may be the best way to write it. Next stop...psychiatrist. :lol: But my original word before I opted for "reminiscent" was "akin."

Last try :)

"a feeling very much like love..."..."a feeling akin to love."

Does that sound too stiff or too formal ?

Lillian


"A feeling akin to love" would be fine (I don't think it's too stiff or too formal) for a story in which the character had discovered affection, or fondness, or something else that is akin to love. "Akin" is a great word, and one that's not used often enough. That's still not quite what's happening in my story, though.

As Mark Twain said, "The distance between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter--'tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning."

"Akin" is almost right, and would be absolutely right (as would 'reminiscent') in another story. Just not this story.
Jan Ackerson

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