I’m Lou Franco and this is episode 29 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
This is the second episode of Season 3
Last week, in episode 28, I spoke about complex sentences. After listening to it, I kind of realized that episode 28 is really the start of season three of this podcast.
I did season one two years ago. It’s mostly about the process of writing, things that I do to make it easier for me to write first drafts, edit, come up with ideas, and so forth.
And then I stopped working on the podcast for almost two years. I picked it up for season two, which I started around May of this year. And that season is about not quitting, and I did 12 episodes on variations around that idea ending with a four part series on the bookArt & Fear, the book that inspired me not to quit.
Last week, I went off that topic and spoke about something very fundamental—how to write complex sentences, and I’m going to continue along in that theme for what I’m now calling season three, drawing lessons from some of what I consider the greatest books about writing, and picking out ideas related to using words, sentences, and paragraphs. These are things that I’ve found that I need to work on, and I hope that that can help you too.
Last week, the book I referenced was called The Golden Book on Writing by David Lambuth. He was a professor at Dartmouth, and the book was a collection of the notes that he used, his class notes that he used while he was teaching. That probably sounds familiar, because one of the most famous books on writing, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, is very similar.
William Strunk wrote the first part of the book just for his class at Cornell. They were his class notes. And then later. E.B. White, who had taken the class (he was one of his students) edited those notes and added a new section that he wrote about Style.
This episode picks up where the last one ended. I spoke about complex sentences and how important they were for expressing nuance. In Elements of Style, Strunk wrote a similar rule for how to construct paragraphs.
It’s Rule 18 in the section called Principles of Composition, and the rule is entitled “Avoid a Succession of Loose Sentences”.
Here is the first paragraph of the rule.
This rule refers especially to loose sentences of a particular type, those consisting of two clauses, the second introduced by a conjunction or relative. A writer may err by making their sentences too compact and periodic. An occasional loose sentence prevents the style from becoming too formal and gives the reader a certain relief. Consequently, loose sentences are common in easy, unstudied writing. The danger is that there may be too many of them.
Here is a paragraph he included as an example of this problem.
The third concert of the subscription series was given last evening, and a large audience was in attendance. Mr. Edward Appleton was the soloist, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra furnished the instrumental music. The former showed himself to be an artist of the first rank, while the latter proved itself fully deserving of its high reputation. The interest aroused by the series has been very gratifying to the committee, and it is planned to give a similar series annually hereafter. The fourth concert will be given on Tuesday, May 10, when an equally attractive program will be presented.
So maybe you can hear in that, every sentence of the entire paragraph is a two clause sentence using either a simple conjunction or a simple connecting word. And the overall effect of the paragraph makes it feel like each of those sentences is unrelated to the previous one, and therefore the paragraph doesn’t have a cohesive topic and doesn’t build in any way to form any kind of interesting idea. Strunk says that it sounds sing-song, which I tried to amplify as I was reading the paragraph.
William Strunk says that if you find yourself writing a paragraph like that, then you should replace some of the sentences with either simple or complex sentences, depending on what makes sense.
I have this problem
As soon as I read this rule, I recognized that I have this problem. And I knew that he had put a name to something that I knew I was seeing in my own writing but didn’t know how to fix.
For example, I sometimes write movie reviews on my blog where all I talk about is a single piece of technology in the movie. It’s meant to be funny.
In any case, in 2013, I reviewed the prequel to the Wizard of Oz, which was called Oz and starred James Franco (no relation). Here’s the first paragraph.
Oz is set in 1905, so it doesn’t have much advanced technology. I researched the novels of Frank L. Baum, and I was surprised to learn that he wrote a novel that introduced the idea of augmented reality. Also, in the Wizard of Oz novel, the emerald city isn’t made of emerald (as it is in the original movie and this one), but instead, Dorothy and her companions are given glasses to wear that make it look as if it is. Unfortunately, since my review is limited to Oz, the movie, I can’t write up a comparison between that and Google Glasses.
That paragraph is not cohesive and it isn’t obvious what it’s about. One of the signs is that it’s made up of loose sentences. To fix it, the first thing to do is to just think about the point of the sentence. All I want to say in this sentence is that Frank L. Baum came up with the idea of Augmented Reality, but since it’s not in this movie, I can’t write about that. Every other detail that strays from this idea should either be omitted or used in a sub-clause of a complex sentence.
Here’s my fixed paragraph:
Before I wrote this review, I researched the novels of Frank L. Baum, and I was surprised to learn that he came up with the idea of augmented reality in his book, The Master Key. Following that thread, I found another AR reference in his writing—this time in The Wizard of Oz. It turns out that, in the book, when Dorothy enters Emerald City, she is given glasses that only make it look like the city is made of emerald. Unfortunately, Oz is a faithful prequel to the movie, not the book, so its Emerald City is actually made of emerald too, which sucks because in my head, I was already photoshopping Google Glasses onto a picture of James Franco.
I think that that’s a lot better. In fact, I’m going to go back into that blog entry from 2013 and replace that paragraph. For some reason, this is a very popular page on my site, mainly because it dissects the ghostly apparitions that are in Oz and people like to look that up in Google.
Here’s what you can try
Here’s what you can try. Just like I did, look for paragraphs in your own writing that seem not to be working. You might notice that they are made up of loose sentences. If you read it aloud, it will sound sing-songy.
If there’s too many loose sentences, then one fix is to vary the sentence structures. Use a mix of simple, complex, and compound sentences.
More importantly, make sure the paragraph has a point. In episode 5, I quoted Larry McEnerney, who said
Anything you write has the function of helping your readers understand better something they want to understand well.
He was referring to the entire work, but it also applies at the micro level to each paragraph. A reader should be able to come to the end of the paragraph with a new understanding. A part of the entire argument you are making.
So, make sure that your paragraph does have some kind of point that it’s trying to make. Something that carries forward the intent of the entire piece. The asides should be there to add color, but make sure to reduce their weight by using them parenthetically or in sub-clauses.
Make sure the reader moves forward in their understanding of a sub-topic of your piece by the end of the paragraph.
Thank you for listening. This has been Write While True, a podcast that is ok with infinite loops, as long as they’re fun.