Write While True Episode 31: Transcript

listen | subscribe

I’m Lou Franco and this is episode 31 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

Three Writing Books I Love

This is season 3 of this podcast. In this season I’ve been talking about words and sentences and paragraphs — the building blocks of writing.

Last week I shared passages from three books I’ve been spending a lot of time with lately: The Elements of Style, The Golden Book on Writing, and Writing Down the Bones. I talked about the advice they had for avoiding adverbs and finding nouns and verbs that carry descriptive weight.

I’m going to use these three books again for today’s topic, which is the order of words in a sentence.

I love that these books tackle mundane topics, things that seem innate, but aren’t. I mean, we can order words into something grammatical without much thought. Even though a ten-sentence word has ten factorial possible orderings, we can easily find the handful that are legal English.

But finding the best one among those isn’t always easy.

To David Lambuth, in The Golden Book, word order is about avoiding confusion. He writes:

Writing sentences which are easily understood frequently depends upon keeping sentence elements in their natural or logical order. Many sentences are ineffective because their various elements seem to have been flung together haphazard. This confusion can generally be avoided by a little careful thinking. Remember that the three simplest kinds of order—the order of time, the order of cause to effect, and the order of climax—are particularly useful in helping you to arrange the details in a natural and easy series.

He then gives the example: “He flung himself over the cliff, crazed with jealousy” which has reversed time, it’s reversed cause and effect and starts with the climax. The fix is to reverse the order of the clauses so it becomes “Crazed with jealousy, he flung himself over the cliff”.

Both sentences are grammatical, but in the second one we end with the climax.

In Elements of Style, William Strunk agreed that the end of sentence is special.

He wrote:

The proper place in the sentence for the word or group of words that the writer desires to make the most prominent is usually the end.

The group of words entitled to this position of prominence is usually the … new element in the sentence.

I want to point out that in both David Lambuth’s writing and in William Strunk’s they like to use the advice they’re giving to word the sentences of their advice. So I’m going to read the first sentence of William Strunk’s again and notice that this sentence is an example of his own advice. Here’s the sentence again:

The proper place in the sentence for the word or group of words that the writer desires to make the most prominent is usually the end.

And now here’s his second sentence, which is also an example of his advice

The group of words entitled to this position of prominence is usually the … new element in the sentence.

The words “new element in the sentence” is the new idea he’s introducing and he’s put that new idea at the end of the sentence. The position of the most prominence.

Now in both books, they recommend putting the subject of the sentence very near the beginning of the sentence, but Strunk points out that the beginning is also a position of emphasis as long as it’s not the subject. His example of a sentence like that is “Deceit or treachery he could not forgive”.

“Deceit or treachery” is not the subject of the sentence. By putting it at the beginning it gives it more weight.

As you would expect, these are just general rules of thumb, and in both books, the authors give counter examples that show you can break the rules if you know what you’re doing.

Just like in last week, these two books offer advice and examples, but it’s Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones, that we get a practical exercise that you can do to help you try to find word ordering. Here’s what she recommends.

Take one of your most boring pieces of writing, and choose from it three or four consecutive lines or sentences, and write them at the top of a blank piece of paper.

See each of those words simply as wooden blocks, all the same size and color. No noun or verb has any more value than a “the”, “a”, or an “and”. Everything is equal. Now for about a third of a page, scramble them up as though you are moving wooden blocks around.

Don’t try to make any sense of what you write down. Your mind will keep trying to construct something. Hold back that urge, relax, and mindlessly write down the words.

Like in the rest of her book, most of her exercises are grounded in her practice of meditation. This is a very meditative act. But, by doing this, you might find novel word orderings.

Now, she’s a poet, and the examples in her chapter are mostly poetry, where you can flaunt the rules of syntax even more than you could in most writing.

The kind of writing I do and what I think most of you do, we don’t have that luxury. So I’m going recommend something different for today’s episode.

Try this exercise

Here’s an exercise that’s a little more practical to nonfiction or technical writing. If you’re having trouble with a sentence or group of sentences, especially if it sounds boring or confusing or just not not working for you, write them down as Natalie Goldberg recommended.

But instead of going into a meditative enumeration of all of the possible combinations of words that you can make, see if you can enumerate the various grammatically correct sentences you can make with those words.

Try changing which noun is the subject. Try reordering the clauses to give different ones emphasis. Think about cause and effect, and time, and building up to a climax—the three natural orderings that David Lambuth suggested.

Remember, even though there are lots and lots of possible orderings, they’re probably only less than a dozen or so that are grammatically correct.

See if you can find them. Figure out which one works for you.

Thanks for listening. This has been Write While True, a podcast where we’re okay with infinite loops as long as they’re fun.