I’m Lou Franco and this is episode 28 of Write While True.
The name of this podcast is a program that goes into an infinite loop, and that’s because I think of writing as an infinite game.
It’s like a game of catch, which is even more fun when you get better at it, but the only way to do that is to keep playing.
So in each episode, I’ll tell you something I learned about writing, and then I’ll throw you the ball with a writing challenge or a prompt
Learning how to Make Marks
I’ve mentioned before in this podcast that I like to sketch, mostly with pencil and charcoal on paper, but also with markers—grayscale markers. When I first started, one of the first things I needed to learn was how my drawing tools and the paper interacted. What kind of mark did each level of pencil hardness make, and how was that different from charcoal or markers? What kind of paper worked best? I also had to learn about the kneaded eraser, which can remove charcoal from a drawing.
I did various exercises that helped me understand my own tools. I did different kinds of crosshatching with pencils. I made strips of grayscale gradients, trying to learn how to get as many different levels of gray as I could. I learned how to make confident strokes quickly that were still accurate. To do that, I’ve had to become proficient with the physical nature of drawing tools and paper.
Over time, I’ve become better at manipulating my tools because I do a lot of drawing. The mark of some tool on paper was a basic building block that I needed to master.
In programming, it’s kind of the same thing. The tools are the variable, the loop, the conditional, and the function. There are more, but you can make a lot of programs with not much more than that.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this and trying to figure out what is the equivalent for this in writing. Here’s what I’ve come up with. I think a basic part of writing, a building block, the mark that you make, is with writing sentences, and that what you need to practice is sentence construction.
Sentences are what you build paragraphs from, and you use paragraphs to build bigger works. Sentences are like the marks on a sketch. If manipulating a piece of charcoal on paper in different ways is the way to practice making marks, then what kind of exercises could you do to practice making sentences?
David Lambuth’s Advice
I got a clue from David Lambuth’s Golden Book on Writing. I mentioned this book in Episode 20, when I said that he suggested modeling sentences after natural speech. In that episode I spoke about how I’m using extemporaneous speaking as a way to generate some writing. I record myself and then get a transcript.
Here’s another tip from him on constructing complex sentences. Here’s the quote:
Complex sentences alone make possible that careful indication of the importance of one idea over another and that sense of the interrelation of ideas which is essential to accurate thinking.
Not until you have learned to select almost unconsciously the central, dominating thought of your sentence, and to group around this in varying degrees of emphasis the secondary or modifying thoughts, have you learned to think clearly.
So the tool you’re learning to manipulate is clauses. Simple sentences are simple. A complex sentence, however, is made up of clauses that are used to give nuance to a complex thought, which you express by ordering them.
If you make your paragraphs only out of simple sentences, then each idea in the paragraph is given equal weight. You need to use complex sentences to establish a hierarchy of ideas, ideas that are your main point and subordinate clauses that are only modifying that main point.
So here’s what I’ve been doing and what I think you should try.
Practice writing complex sentences.
Complex sentences are perfect for when you have a nuanced idea that needs several clauses to build up. If you write each of these clauses as separate sentences, then the reader can’t figure out the main point. But if you can combine all of these ideas together into a complex sentence, then you can vary the emphasis.
Take one of your own nuanced ideas. Break it down and distill the main point and two or three modifying thoughts. Just list them as bullet points in the order of importance. Now try stringing them together into a single sentence that emphasizes the main point and expresses the secondary points with less weight. The main way to express weight is with the order of the words. David Lambuth offers many suggestions in his book. Here are two
- Tend to put the subject of the sentence near the beginning of the sentence and the verb closely following.
- For the overall flow of the sentence, take advantage of natural orderings such as time, cause and effect, and building a climax.
I’m going to talk about this for the next few weeks, and I’ll have more exercises that you can use to practice building sentences and paragraphs.
Thank you for listening. This has been Write While True, a podcast where we’re okay with infinite loops as long as they’re fun.