Sentence Structure # 04 Word Choice: The Sharper, The Better

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There is a difference between “Someone stole the priest’s thing!” and “The abbot’s lover absconded with his most prized Bible!” and that difference is owed to word choice. The more exact the words you make use of, the better. Words are the writer’s tools; you’ll want to avoid those with a blunted edge. Instead, you want your words to be sharp, to cut through the mind’s haze and shatter your reader’s pretty little heart!

Think of the last news article you clicked. Odds are, the headline was striking enough to catch your attention in-between the mountains of forgettable text the Internet is chock-full of. My last read? Pediatrician Seema Jilani’s first-person account of the Beirut catastrophe, titled: Broken Glass, Blood, and Anguish: Beirut After the Blast. See how evocative it is? The words immediately call to mind the recent tragedy, while at the same time providing ample space for the reader to add their own association with the first half of the title. These are concrete words, which forecast the very real and horrific experience the writer — and hundreds of thousands others — went through, an event that will continue to define many lives for months and years to come.

The opening of the article proper does not lose any steam:

As I emerged from the car, the air was still whirring with debris. Everything was eerily silent. But it wasn’t. I just couldn’t hear anything. My ears were ringing.

The street scene in front of me, almost two blocks from my apartment and walking distance from the epicenter of the blast, was a silent horror film. Stunned people stumbled out of cafés, dogs dripping with blood cowered in corners, cars crumpled under chunks of concrete. A young girl approached me, dust layered in her eyelashes and hair.

Broken Glass, Blood, and Anguish: Beirut After the Blast
Seema Jilani for the NYR Daily

I turned away from that article devastated, my understanding of the tragedy in Beirut now no longer merely the intellectual kind that a horrific tragedy happened which affected an entire city and its population; but the emotional understanding of and response to the plight of one family, and through that plight, the resonance that a thousand–ten thousand, a hundred thousand– families went through a visceral experience that has traumatised a society.

Hey, look at me breaking my own rule about sentence length. Back to the topic at hand…Such is the strength of concrete word choice; it is the most certain way of evoking the experience you want from your readers, and it’s among the most important building blocks in the writer’s toolbox.

Remove bland, general words from your writing unless they serve a very specific function in your sentence. June Casagrande puts it best:

I never want to read that your character heard a noise. I never want to read that the burglar stole some things. I never want to learn that your actions had an effect, that your CEO implemented a new procedure, or that your employees enjoyed a get-together.

I want loud thuds and Omega wristwatches. I want e-mail surveillance and sudden firings. Tell me that your CEO is cracking down on personal phone calls and that the accounting department held its annual drunken square dance and clambake in the warehouse.

Use specific words. Make it a habit to scrutinize your nouns and verbs to always aks yourself whether you’re missing an opportunity to create a more vivid experience for your Reader. This habit will open up a world of choices.

Chapter 6, Words Gone Mild

There isn’t much more to this topic, and the post can be distilled to the following advice from Yoda: Be mindful, young Padawan.

…Or was that a piece of advice from yoga?

Either way, vague words are the enemy. Cast them into the fire, and don’t look back.

Sentence Writing #03: Long and Short Sentences

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Few elements of style can harm your work the way an overbusy, cluttered sentence can. But reading about cluttered sentences from a theoretical standpoint is one thing — seeing one such sentence is entirely different.

Let’s construct a glorious Example:

My ratonnastick, being a perfectly good fellow at heart who always knew his lot in life and lived as only a ratonnastick could–on a stick–was simply ecstatic about being prepared with a pinch of salt, a little pepper, several squirts of ketchup and an uncanny amount of lemon juice, which added just that extra little bit of punch, so necessary for satisfying the palates of members of high society.

It’s okay to write a sentence such as this one in a first draft*; it’s negligent to have it in a finished manuscript. A sentence like this is an offense against any potential reader you might hope to court. This sentence wanders from one idea to the next, uncertain of what it’s trying to say; so it ends up saying too much. Why don’t we break down all the pieces of information in the sentence below:

  • My ratonnastick is a good fellow at heart.
  • He always knew his lot in life.
  • He lived only as a ratonnastick could live.
  • My ratonnastick was ecstatic about the method of his preparation.
  • He was prepared with an assortiment of condiments.
  • The lemon juice adds an extra punch.
  • Members of high society have a taste for lemon juice.

That’s…seven(7!) unique ideas we’ve uncovered tucked underneath the conjunctions and dependent clauses of our long sentence. Can you figure out the main clause? Scroll past the picture of our revered lord and saviour, the ratonnastick, to find out!

That’s right, the main clause in this sentence is equivalent to, “My ratonnastick was ecstatic about the method of his preparation.” I’ve cut the list of condiments, because they’re all prepositional phrases that take up too much space. Better to be frugal in your choice of words.

So much of the information in this sentence is excessive, bloated and delivered in a way that is non-conducive to holding the reader’s interest. (This would be a good moment to remind you that you’ll usually be writing with at least some implied Reader in mind. For these blog posts, my implied Reader is an older, more dashing version of me who still considers his earlier self hilarious. Ergo, the jokes.)

Let’s rewrite this sentence in a way that doesn’t make the Reader want to gorge their eyes out, shall we?

My ratonnastick, being was a perfectly good fellow at heart. who He always knew his lot in life and lived as only a ratonnastick could–on a stick. That’s why hewas simply ecstatic about being cooked. prepared The chefs used a pinch of salt, a little pepper, several squirts of ketchup and some an uncanny amount of lemon juice., which This last ingredient addsed just that extra little bit of punch, so necessary for satisfying the palates of which plays well with members of high society.

As you see, in addition to rearranging this sentence, I’ve also changed a few details. But let’s clear it up:

My ratonnastick was a perfectly good fellow at heart. He knew his lot in life and lived as only a ratonnastick could–on a stick. That’s why he was ecstatic about being cooked. The chefs used a pinch of salt, a little pepper, several squirts of ketchup and some lemon juice. This last ingredient adds extra punch, which plays well with members of high society.

Bit strange, but I think we’ve found a motif to all these blog posts, and it’s onnnastick. More importantly, this is now a legible paragraph. Shorter sentences interplay with longer ones, and create an ebb and flow that makes this easy to read. This rewrite differentiates the different pieces of information. It gives them space to breathe and allows the reader to wrap his mind around what’s going on; in a word, it makes the writing more comprehensible.

All of this is not to say that you should avoid using longer, more complex sentences. You might seek to create moods that a long sentence can imbue much better than a short one; confusion, uncertainty, paranoia come to mind as three such moods. Or you might be aiming for a particular effect, as Rachel Cusk is in her Outline trilogy**.

But what does great sentence sage June Casagrande say about the question of short versus long sentence use?

Allow me to end this debate once and for all. Here’s how you should look at it: Brevity is a tool. It’s a very powerful tool. You don’t have to use it. But you have to know how. If you’re going to use long sentences, it should be by choice, not due to bumbling ineptitude. Every long sentence can be broken up into shorter ones, and if you don’t know how–if you don’t see within your long sentences groupings of simple, clear ideas–it will show.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

This post by no means advocates the exclusive use of short sentences — that’s a one-way street to monotonous writing, which will bore the Reader to tears — as a novice editor on Fiverr, I’ve encountered several lifetimes’ worth of that problem. Rather, my aim here is to ask you to avoid use of meandering, rambling sentences that keep going on and on and on and on and on well past their end point. Be cautious in your verbosity, dear Reader. Oh, and one last piece of advice from Casagrande’s chapter on the topic:

Only someone who can see ideas in their most pared-down form can begin stringing them together in ways that make an outrageously long sentence work.

So you see, size DOES matter. Just…not in the way you think.

*This one is comically cluttered…as is my mind.

**To get a taste of the kind of writing Cusk is known for, you should read my essay on Transit, which imitates the author’s style to some success.

***

Thank you for reading, everyone! If you enjoyed this third post in the series, but haven’t checked out the previous two – go back to the link at the top and take a few minutes to browse through them! As always, I owe a debt of gratitude to June Casagrande and her book on sentence construction.

Got any questions? Leave them in the comments down below!

I’ve also got a YouTube channel, where I produce video essays about games and all manner of nonsense. I also review fantasy and sci-fi novels over on The Fantasy Hive – and I’m far from alone. Check it out, it’s got wonderful content, we’re doing #WomenInSFF features for all of July!