Monday, September 3, 2012

Is Your Writer's Tool Belt Equipped?

It's Fall, and with it comes Labor Day...time to get 'back to the basics' in writing!

As promised, I will be posting my "Mulling Over the Mechanics of Writing" article, featuring the book "Writing Tools" by Roy Peter Clark. Each Monday, we will explore a chapter, summarizing one Writer's tool that will help us hone our craft.  For a free condensed podcast version of the book, click here.

First, a few paragraphs from the book to set the scene:

"...this book invites you to imagine the act of writing less as a special talent, and more as a purposeful craft.  Think of writing as carpentry, ans consider this book your you add tools to your workbench, you'll begin to see the world as a storehouse of writing ideas.  As you gain proficiency with each took, and then fluency, the act of writing will make you a better student, a better worker, a better friend, a better citizen, a better parent, a better teacher, a better person."

So, this is not just for writers!  It's for anyone who wants to communicate in a meaningful way...

Where did Roy find these tools?


-Great works on writing, such as The Elements of Style and On Writing Well
-The authors whose works, more than 200 of them, are sampled here
-Productive conversations with professional writers and editors
-America's great writing teachers

He suggests a few tips:

-Remember, these are tools, not rules
-Don't try to apply these tools all at once
-You will become handy with these tools over time
-You already use many of these tools without knowing it

Mr. Clark has divided the tools into four boxes:

1. Nuts and Bolts: strategies for making meaning at the word, sentence and paragraph levels (1-10)
2. Special effects: tools of economy, clarity, originality, and persuasion (11-23)
3. Blueprints: ways of organizing and building stories and reports (24-39)
4. Useful habits: routines for living a life of productive writing (40-50)

Now, let's get down to work!

TOOL #1: Begin Sentences with Subjects and Verbs

He uses an example from John Steinbeck's Cannery Row, describing the routine of a marine scientist named Doc (the emphasis is Roy's):

     He didn't need a clock.  He had been working in a tidal pattern so long that he could feel a tide change in his sleep.....
     The tide goes out imperceptibly.  The boulders show and seem to rise up and the ocean recedes leaving little pools...

Steinbeck places subject and verb at or near the beginning of each sentence. 'Subject and verb are often separated in prose, usually because we want to tell the reader something about the subject before we get to the verb.  This delay,' Clark points out, 'even for good reasons, risks confusing the reader.'

His BAD example:

A bill that would exclude tax income from the assessed value of new homes from the state education funding formula could mean a loss of revenue for Chesapeake County schools.

Eighteen words separate the subject, "bill," from its weak verb, "could be," a fatal flaw that turns what could be an important civic story into gibberish.

I KNOW I've been guilty of this mistake many times in my writing!  So, what do we do?

Here is a suggestion Roy makes in his "WORKSHOP" section at the end of each chapter.  I will summarize it:

1. Read through a newspaper with a pencil in hand.  Mark the locations of subjects and verbs.  

2. Do the same with a draft you are working on now.  

3. Each time you struggle with a sentence, rewrite it by placing the subject and verb at the beginning.

Are you guilty of this habit? Then try the exercises above...did you notice anything new about your writing?

Stay tuned next Monday for Tool #2: Order Words for Emphasis

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