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Fear not the long sentence

A year ago I wrote an essay for the New York Times titled “The Short Sentence as Gospel Truth.” It argued that authors express their most important ideas or dramatic moments in the shortest sentences. This turned out to be a popular piece, the most emailed of the day. Teachers and editors anointed the short sentence as the solution to many writing problems.

trainFrom my shot comes a rebound:  “If the short sentence is the gospel truth, then what is the long sentence?”  My best answer is metaphorical:  “It’s a journey on a westbound train.”

Editors advise, “When it comes to the long sentence, children, be afraid, be very afraid.”  In the common view, the long sentence too often spins off the tracks, a wreck on the road to comprehensibility. It is not an irrational fear. In almost every story I have written comes a moment when I must take that overly ambitious sentence and cut it in two.

When I fight this anxiety, when I advise writers to “Fear not the long sentence,” my encouragement inspires looks of alarm from teachers as if I were advocating taking all the garter snakes out of high school terrariums and replacing them with anacondas.

Care must be taken with the long sentence of course, the care of craft, because mastery of the long sentence is an arrow in the quiver of almost every writer I admire. As always, the exercise of craft begins not with technique but a sense of mission and purpose. By my count, there are three main reasons to cast a long sentence:

  • To take a journey through a physical or emotional landscape.
  • To create a catalogue or inventory.
  • To build a mosaic of logic or evidence.

Let’s test an example of each, beginning with this excerpt from one of my favorite novels, Herzog by Saul Bellow:

The wheels of the cars stormed underneath. Woods and pastures ran up and receded, the rails of sidings sheathed in rust, the dipping racing wires, and on the right the blue of the Sound, deeper, stronger than before. Then the enameled shells of the commuters’ cars, and the heaped bodies of junk cars, the shapes of old New England mills with narrow, austere windows;  villages, convents; tugboats moving in the swelling fabric-like water; and then plantations of pine, the needles on the ground of a life-giving russet color.

Think of yourself as riding northeast on a train through Connecticut, as is the protagonist in Bellow’s novel. You chug along slowly (with a seven word sentence); then accelerate (with 31 words); by the time you reach your highest speed  (50 words), you are rattling between the landscape and the seascape with the detritus of civilization flying by you. With that longest sentence, the author takes us on a journey. We see what he wants us to see in the order he wants us to see it.

There is a bit of an inventory in Bellow’s sentence, a list of things that fly by you on a moving train. That effect is magnified in this controversial sentence that begins David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King:

Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-​brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s‑quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-​print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.

I describe this 88-word sentence as controversial because I have found it listed among the best and worst sentences ever written, and it does convey a look-at-me quality that some critics find self-indulgent. But make believe, for a second, that you love it. Take a ride across a symbolic American landscape, populated by (count them) 19 species of weed and wild plant – each with a wonderful name – all headed for the verb “invaginate,” DFW’s pregnant synonym for “enclose.”

Take a journey, review an inventory, or, if you prefer, follow the path of an argument. Consider this example from Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ describing a plan of action immediately after the Kennedy assassination:

No single gesture would do more to demonstrate continuity and stability – to show that the government of the United States would continue to function without interruption despite the assassination of the man who sat at its head – and to legitimize the transition:  to prove that the transfer of power had been orderly, proper, in accordance with the Constitution; to move, in the eyes of the world, any taint of usurpation;  to dampen, so far as possible, suspicion of complicity by him in the deed; to show that the family of the man he was succeeding bore him no ill will and supported him, than the attendance at this swearing-in ceremony of the late President’s widow.

Caro has proven countless times that he understands the power of a short sentence. His description of the second that changed LBJ’s life forever – and America’s — during the motorcade through Dallas is told in a single sentence, serving as a paragraph, just six words long:  “There was a sharp, cracking sound.”

Contrast that to the 115 words in the example above. Notice that it contains the two qualities we have already described as characteristic of long sentences. It takes us on a journey of sorts, not across a landscape now, but across a plan of action. And it contains an inventory, not of physical objects but of a set of purposes. It adds a final element though, and that is a body of evidence. The case is framed early and late in the sentence: that the best way to show the peaceful transfer of power in America was by the presence of Jacqueline Kennedy at LBJ’s swearing-in ceremony. Every word between those frames is designed to persuade.

From my study of the long sentence, I have concluded that:

  • It helps if subject and verb of main clause come early.
  • Use the long sentence to describe something long.
  • It helps if the long sentence is written in chronological order.
  • Use the long sentence in variation with sentences of short and medium length.
  • Use the long sentence as a list or catalog of products, names, images – saving the most important for the end.
  • Long sentences need more editing than short ones.

By contrast to some famous sentences written in the 17th century – “sentences that resemble processions or a funeral cortege in their sheer ceremonial lavishness” as novelist W.G. Sebald described them — contemporary long sentences seem modest in their ambitions: to take the reader on a little journey of discovery amidst an endless sequence of 140-character bits of language. Read more

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Wednesday, Sep. 24, 2014

J.D. Salinger

For Banned Books Week: An X-ray reading from Catcher in the Rye

File photo of J.D. Salinger appears next to copies of his classic novel "The Catcher in the Rye" as well as his volume of short stories called "Nine Stories."  (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)

File photo of J.D. Salinger appears next to copies of his classic novel “The Catcher in the Rye” as well as his volume of short stories called “Nine Stories.” (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)

Earlier this year the editors of American Scholar published a dozen examples of “best sentences,” passages from classic literature worth saving and savoring. I was inspired by these and offered my own interpretation of what made them memorable. Now I’ve caught the bug and there appears to be no cure. With the blessing of Robert Wilson, editor of AS, I have chosen a number of sinewy or shapely sentences for X-ray reading, trying to understand what a writer can learn from each. (We’ll be publishing these exemplars occasion, highlighting the writing strategies that created them.)

Since this is also Banned Books Week, I begin with the first sentence of one of the most celebrated banned books of all time: The Catcher in the Rye, published by Little, Brown, which also, I’m proud to add, happens to be my publisher. (Also thinking of moving to Vermont to become a recluse.)

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. (63 words)
– J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

Following in the footsteps of Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn, J.D. Salinger sacrifices his own language and mature insights (sort of) to turn narration of his novel over to a prep school student, Holden Caulfield, who came to represent the alienation of the post-World War II generation.

This is a carefully constructed text, of course, but it doesn’t sound that way. That’s the magic of it. It sounds like someone talking. How do you do that? You use the second person (“you”), contractions (“you’ll,” “don’t”), slang (“lousy”), intensifiers (“really”), verbal punctuation (“and all”), and mild profanity (“crap”). The cumulative effect is informal and conversational.

Of all his literary gifts, Salinger had a great ear for the spoken word and captures the idioms of his time in phrases like “how my parents were occupied” and “if you want to know the truth.” A double-edged razor hides in both phrases. The first one could mean (“what my parents did for a living,”) but “occupied” carries with it some negative connotations, as in the word “pre-occupied,” that is, distracted.

The second phrase “if you want to know the truth” is used mostly as filler in conversation, and yet the key word “truth” comes at the end, inviting the question of whether Holden is a reliable narrator about his own life story.

My favorite phrase here is “and all that David Copperfield kind of crap.” This feels like a mature literary allusion rather than the ramblings of an alienated teenager. Note the alliteration, the repetition of hard “c” sounds: Copperfield, kind, crap. Perhaps Holden sees himself as a Dickensian character like David Copperfield who experiences an endless series of traumatic events in his young life. Or, perhaps, the reclusive author is sending a secret signal: Just as David Copperfield is considered Dickens’s most autobiographical novel, Catcher contains, we now know, many parallels to the young life of J.D. Salinger.

I must note that Catcher remains on many lists of banned books. However mild the word “crap” appears to us, it signals to the reader the rougher words to come, including some f-bombs that excited students, but traumatized some parents and School Board members.

By the end of the novel, Holden reveals that he is in therapy and repeats a key phrase from the beginning: “If you want to know the truth, I don’t know what I think about it, ” that is everything that he has told us. There is a kind of group therapy feel to the language from the beginning, as if he’s answered a question from a shrink about his childhood and parents: “If you really want to hear about it….”

In summary, it takes skill to create prose that sounds like someone speaking directly to the reader. We have a name for that effect: voice. It’s hard enough to achieve when the narrator is the author. It’s even more challenging when the author turns over that task to a teenage boy who likes to wear a red hunting cap. Read more

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Monday, Aug. 25, 2014

Calendar Pages and Clock

Want to avoid procrastination? Impose an early deadline on yourself

When I wrote “The Glamour of Grammar,” I turned in the manuscript about three months late. Not a good feeling.

Friday morning, I turned in a finished draft of my next book, “The Art of X-ray Reading,” three months early. A very good feeling.

The key part of the word deadline, remember, is not the “line” part, but the “dead” part.

Now solve this riddle: When does a deadline become a lifeline?

The answer: When it is self-imposed.

I describe the process in my book Help! For Writers:

Many writers procrastinate until the deadline roars toward them like a train, the writer standing on the tracks. Pressing a deadline is a devil-may-care form of exhibitionism, a Houdini escape from a straitjacket, just in the nick of time, fueled by adrenaline. The literary daredevil may self-medicate with caffeine or nicotine to stimulate the writing, but adrenaline remains the writer’s little helper – and the drug of choice.

Spitting in the eye of a deadline is risky business for any writer. Beyond the dangers of self-medication, the writer can 1) have an anxiety attack, 2) be punished for getting the work in late, 3) leave no time for revision, and 4) leave no time for editors and other collaborators to do their best work. Not one of these comes into play when the writer sets an artificial deadline.

Author Jaipi Sixbear describes how writers working online can be both productive and punctual:

Remember to write your assignments two days ahead of their due date whenever possible. You can even trick yourself into meeting deadlines easily. Put an earlier due date on your outline. Chances are, you won’t have time to look up the actual date due. Your editor will be impressed with your promptness.

This process can work by the year, the week, or the day. If it is noon and your story is due at 6 p.m., impose a 4 p.m. deadline on yourself and use the extra two hours to improve the story.

For a big project, I like to use holidays as time targets. For “Help! For Writers,” I had a deadline around Christmastime, so I imposed a fake deadline on myself for Labor Day.

When the draft started to flow, I told myself, “You know, Roy, you could finish this by your wedding anniversary, Aug. 7.” I shipped out a completed draft just after the Fourth of July weekend, almost six months ahead of contract deadline. It may have set a Little, Brown record. Take that, Emily Dickinson and J.D. Salinger! You slackers. Read more

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Friday, Aug. 08, 2014

The Kardashian Family Celebrates the Grand Opening of DASH Miami Beach

Dashes — the Kardashians of punctuation

The dash is the Kim Kardashian of punctuation marks: misplaced, over-exposed, shamelessly self-promoting, always eager to elbow out her jealous sisters the comma, colon, and semicolon.

My friend and mentor Don Fry has for years waged a holy war against the dash. Not the hundred-yard dash or a dash of paprika, but that most horizontal mode of punctuation, also known as an em dash — so named because it’s about as wide as a capital “M” in some typefaces.

Don, known as an enthusiastic exaggerator, has drummed up his opposition to the dash to ramming speed, and, truth be told, I can’t remember seeing a single instance of that mini-flatline in his own writing. He argues that writers use the dash profligately as a substitute for another more precise mark, and that the failure to learn, say, the colon or semicolon has created a dependence on the dash as the fallback punctuation tool.

I followed Don’s lead for a while and found that in most cases I was better off with something other than the dash. Then one day I sat staring at a sentence in frustration until my eyes went out of focus and my nose started to bleed. Suddenly it hit me: I needed a dash! Once liberated from Don’s orthodoxy, I began to see useful dashes everywhere, especially in the work of some of my favorite authors.

You know, every now and then, that Kim Kardashian looks pretty hot, doesn’t she?

Kim Kardashian, Khloe Kardashian and Kourtney Kardashian attend the opening of their boutique Dash -- seriously, that's its name -- in Miami Beach, Florida, in March. (Photo by Omar Vega/Invision/AP)

Kim Kardashian, Khloe Kardashian and Kourtney Kardashian attend the opening of their boutique Dash — seriously, that’s its name — in Miami Beach, Florida, in March. (Photo by Omar Vega/Invision/AP)

My reading reminded me that the dash has two important uses: 1) a pair of dashes can be used — like these two — to embed one sentence or important thought in another; and 2) a dash can be used for emphasis in sharp moments when you want to end a sentence with a stab — like this.

Verlyn Klinkenborg writes essays that often appear in the New York Times, as did this one about a striking coincidence concerning an infamous rocker of the 1960s:

It has been nearly 40 years since the rocker Jim Morrison died. But last week — the day after Morrison would have turned 65 — he appeared in the New York Times in two obituaries: his father’s and that of the owner of the Los Angeles club, Whisky A Go Go, where Morrison’s band, the Doors, got its big break.

Let’s revise that second sentence using commas to replace the dashes:

But last week, the day after Morrison would have turned 65, he appeared in the New York Times in two obituaries…

Those commas would pass Don Fry’s abolitionist test, but I don’t think they make the sentence better. Marking off the embedded clause with dashes sets it apart from the rest of the sentence and highlights an interesting pair of coincidences. With 65 being the traditional retirement age, that clause contains a backstory and a moral lesson of sorts, reminding us of the great music Morrison might have created if a dissolute lifestyle had not led him to an early and much-visited Paris grave.

Klinkenborg wonders aloud about such lessons:

You can play this kind of moral Sudoku — finding the patterns — with the obituaries every day. Look at those summary lives. See how they fit together — or not.

To fit together his words and ideas in those three sentences, the author uses two dashes to embed “finding the patterns” and another at the end to emphasize “or not.” So Don, I say with the love of a true brother: Abolishing baseball’s reserve clause was good; abolishing the dash not so good, especially when that tool is used with care.

It takes a nerd badge to proclaim a favorite dash of all time, but here’s mine, from one of the most famous endings in American literature:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning —-

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

In the authorized text, that dash after “morning” is twice as long as the one after “matter.” Its length, position, and purpose turn it into end punctuation, more than a period, perhaps something like a “double full stop.”

This proves an important point about marks of punctuation: They may come to us as a set of rules, but they serve the writer as tools of meaning and emphasis.

As for the Kardashians, I have just been informed — I am not lying — that they have created a chain of retail outlets called Dash.

Parts of this essay are reprinted in The Glamour of Grammar. All the Kardashian stuff is new. Read more

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Sochi Olympics Pussy Riot

Could the c-word soon be finding its way into news headlines?

If orange is the new black, then the c-word may be becoming the new f-word? It certainly seems that way. With the f-word drifting to more common usage, we need another word for its shock value.

When I write c-word, I do not mean “cable.” But it is on cable television where the c-word is creeping out of the shadows. Tony Soprano and his cronies used it. I hear it on episodes of the popular fantasy drama Game of Thrones, sometimes used to describe a body part, more often as a corrosive epithet against women and men.

Surprisingly, the c-word has taken on a political connotation. In his comedy routines and on his HBO show, Bill Maher has described Sarah Palin as a c—. He defends the use on First Amendment grounds: that Palin is a public figure and that nasty name calling is as old as the Republic.

In a recent episode of HBO’s True Blood, a Palin-type character is referred to as a “Republic–t” by one of the heroic vampires. In the series, vampires are allegorical representations of gay men and women. Many have “come out of the coffin” and into the mainstream, seeking tolerance from humans. The enemies of the “fangers” include religious bigots and conservative politicians. Hence the verbal assault in “Republic–t.”

As we watch the c-word inch away from deviance, it will help to understand the nature of this semantic shift from a historical and literary perspective. Let’s start with a definition from the American Heritage Dictionary: “Vulgar Slang 1.The female sexual organs. 2. Sexual intercourse with a woman [this was new to me]. 3a. Offensive Used as a disparaging term for a woman b. Used as a disparaging term for a person one dislikes or finds extremely disagreeable.

I think there’s something missing here. When used against a woman, the term is offensive enough and more than “disparaging,” more loaded than “bitch.” It’s one of the ultimate language weapons, a word designed to reduce her to the most basic objectification, defining her by the part men can use for their pleasure. I’d prefer not to elevate it by placing it in a rhetorical category, but it’s a form of synecdoche, in which a part represent the whole, the way we call a sailor a “hand.”

Men might be objectified as “dicks” or “pricks,” but those words are derringers vs. the c-bomb. When used against a man, c— takes on a powerful emasculating homophobic connotation, defining him by a body part he doesn’t have. Crude, nasty, and then some. A fighting word.

The etymology of the c-word goes back at least to the French Middle Ages. In English literature, versions or analogues of the word can be found prominently in the works of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare.

In 1972 medieval scholar Thomas Ross compiled Chaucer’s Bawdy, a lexicon of the poet’s sexual and scatological words. One of the longest citations is for queynt (pronounced quaint), which was the Middle English equivalent of the c-word, but one that could be used with much more subtlety.

In addition to being the “normal if crude” synonym for vagina, explains Ross, in other contexts it could mean: “strange, curious, elaborate, ornamented, neat, artful, sly and graceful.” These multiple meanings allowed Chaucer to describe the way that the clever and handy clerk Nicholas grabs the lusty young Alison (I will modernize the language a bit): “As clerks know how to be quite subtle and quite queynte (sly), he in private caught her by the queynte (her privates).”

An earlier lexicon is Shakespeare’s Bawdy by the great British slang master Eric Partridge. He explains that a French version of the c-word is coun, and that one of Shakespeare’s characters mispronounces “gown” as “coun,” causing embarrassment and laughter. A more memorable usage occurs in Hamlet where the young prince torments the fair Ophelia with punning accusations. He tells her to “get thee to a nunnery,” when that term meant both convent and brothel. At one point, when Ophelia seems shocked by his reference to her “lap,” Hamlet asks her “Do you think I meant country matters?” That double-meaning places emphasis on the first syllable of country. In her book Filthy Shakespeare British scholar Pauline Kiernan has an entire chapter with the title C—.

Let’s move ahead 400 years to a recent overheard conversation among four men drinking beers in the clubhouse of a municipal golf course. They took turns complaining about the women in their lives, including girlfriends and wives. The complaints included repetitive use of the c-word. “You know what C— stands for?” asked the loudest of the bunch. “It stands for Can’t Understand Normal Thinking.” (I had a fantasy that the woman warrior knight from Game of Thrones, Brienne of Tarth, would appear, take names, and kick ass.)

There have been feminist efforts to reclaim the word, not unlike the habit of some African-American’s to reclaim the n-word. The most notable of these is a 2002 book by Inga Muscio with a one-word title, spelled out: C—. The sub-title is “A declaration of independence.”  The dedication speaks to its aspirations: “To everyone with C—love in their hearts, especially my Sacred Mother. I thank you for giving me life.”

Who knows to what extent the word will experience what semanticists would call “amelioration.” It remains one of the most powerful weapons of hate and de-humanization, used by both men and women, against both men and women. Yet if it continues to be used in the culture and political wars, we may find ourselves wanting to use it in places we haven’t used it before, perhaps in news stories, even in headlines. “Never,” you say?

There is a recent precedent for this shift in the experience of the c-word’s younger and more playful little sister, the word pussy. Ian Fleming let that cat out of the bag decades ago with one of the most memorable “Bond girls,” Pussy Galore, played in the film by Honor Blackman. Bond you may remember turned this lesbian into a has-bee-an.

But now there is Pussy Riot, the Russian girl punk band whose members have suffered the consequences of proving to the world that the Emperor Putin has no clothes. Their political courage has put the word Pussy on the map – and on the pages of all the big newspapers – and on the lips of all the respectable news anchors. As 007 once reminded us with that inimitable gleam in his eye: “Never say never.” Read more

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Monday, July 14, 2014

Walter Cronkite

Accept praise for something great in your story – even if you didn’t mean it

We writers say we want more praise for our work, but, when it comes, we are often not ready to accept it. We are better at absorbing the blows of negative criticism, perhaps because we suffer from the impostor syndrome, that fear that this is the day that we will be found out, exposed as frauds, banished to law school.

If you are one of those writers who fend off criticism, this essay is for you. As I learned years ago, praise can come at some surprising moments, and for surprising reasons. When it arrives, let it wash over you like a waterfall.

My career in journalism was launched by a short essay I wrote for the New York Times in 1974. It was called “Infectious Cronkitis,” and an editor at the Times by the name of Howard Goldberg told me later that while he liked the essay, he really liked that title.

I was raised in New York, but in 1974 I taught at a small college in Alabama. As I watched local news programs in the South, I was puzzled that all the anchors sounded like they were from the Midwest. I later discovered that most of these news men and women grew up in the South but had been trained or coaxed to abandoned Southern dialects for the “cracked twig” standard. It was as if they all wanted to sound like Cronkite.

This seemed to me like an illness, a form of self-loathing, a prejudice against even educated forms of Southern speech. I remember so clearly writing my essay in a makeshift office in a rented apartment, sitting on a metal chair, banging on a Remington portable typewriter, my baby daughter Alison toddling nearby.

I paused for some inspiration. I needed a name for this conceptual scoop. I was using words like “disease,” “illness,” and “syndrome.” My hands rested on the keyboard, and I looked toward the ceiling, as if in prayer. I needed a name. Suddenly, I thought of a college teacher whose nickname was “The Disease,” not because of the state of his health or his teaching style, but because of his last name: Jurgalitis.

Then came the list of associations: Jurgalitis…Appendicitis…Bronchitis…

I fell back in my chair and hit my head on the floor, a blow cushioned by a pea-green shag carpet.

Cronkitis!

That word changed everything. The column was reprinted in papers across the nation. I got miffed mail from Dan Rather and Uncle Walter himself. I was invited by Edwin Newman to appear on the Today show to talk about language prejudice. Word got to Gene Patterson, then president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, who hired me to lead a writing improvement effort for newspapers. I became a writing coach at the St. Petersburg Times and then the first faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a school that now influences the work of journalists across the globe. I’ve taught there 35 years and have my name as editor or author on 17 books.

Credit Cronkitis, or the Muse who gave that word to me.

I wrote more op-ed columns for the Times about the emerging culture of the New South. During a visit to New York City I was invited to the Times to meet the editors who had been promoting my work, especially Charlotte Curtis and her deputy Howard Goldberg. They were generous in their praise, and I was flattered and grateful.

Then came that comment from Goldberg about “Infectious Cronkitis.” He liked the content of that column, but he loved the title.  “Cronkitis, a great pun in TWO languages,” is the way I remember it.

Two languages? Goldberg explained to someone else in the room: “You know, the German word for disease is krankheit – pronounced Cronkite. In vaudeville, the crazy doctor was always called Dr. Krankheit — Dr. Disease.”

I knew not a single word of German, and my only brush with vaudeville was through sketches by Abbott and Costello and the Three Stooges. But I sat in that room like the young genius I was not — aglow with misdirected praise.

Who among you – especially you writers — get praised too much? I didn’t think so.

I learned a lesson as a writer that day that I pass on to all of you: Never fend off praise. Just accept it. By all means, take credit for things you did not mean. Why? Because you will be blamed for lots and lots of stuff you also didn’t intend.

So repeat after me, scribes: “Yes. I meant it all along. Cronkitis. A pun in TWO languages. Actually THREE if you add krankhayt from the Yiddish.”

Read the letter Walter Cronkite wrote to Roy Peter Clark after the Infectious Cronkitis article came out. Read more

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Afghanistan

Friendly Fire: learn its history before you use it

An Afghan police officer stands guard during a campaign rally in the Paghman district of Kabul, Afghanistan. Five American troops were killed in an apparent coalition airstrike in southern Afghanistan, officials said Tuesday, in one of the worst friendly fire incidents involving U.S. and coalition troops since the start of the war in 2001. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

The recent death of American forces in Afghanistan by what is called “friendly fire” invites a discussion of the meaning and history of that term. Should journalists use it as standard language for a certain kind of military accident? Should it be avoided as euphemism or propaganda, the way some writers avoid “collateral damage”?

What I’ve learned about the term comes from a variety of dictionaries, including the OED; an overview on Wikipedia; and a useful commentary from 2007 on the Language Log website by Ben Zimmer. Read more

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Thursday, Mar. 27, 2014

Books

Why these are the ‘Ten Best Sentences’

The editors of American Scholar have chosen “Ten Best Sentences” from literature, and readers have suggested many more. They threw in an eleventh for good measure. This lovely feature caught me in the middle of a new book project, “Art of X-ray Reading,” in which I take classic passages such as these and look beneath the surface of the text. If I can see the machinery working down there, I can reveal it to writers, who can then add to their toolboxes.

With respect and gratitude to American Scholar, I offer brief interpretations below on how and why these sentences work:

Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby”

This sentence is near the end of the novel, a buildup to its more famous conclusion. It begins with something we can “see,” vanished trees. There is a quick tension between the natural order and the artificial one, a kind of exploitation of the land that is as much part of our cultural heritage as the Myth of the West and Manifest Destiny. “Vanished” is a great word. “The Great Gatsby” sounds like the name of a magician, and he at times vanishes from sight, especially after the narrator sees him for the first time gazing out at Daisy’s dock. What amazes me about this sentence is how abstract it is. Long sentences don’t usually hold together under the weight of abstractions, but this one sets a clear path to the most important phrase, planted firmly at the end, “his capacity for wonder.”

I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.
—James Joyce, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”

This sentence also comes near the end of the novel, but is not the very end. It has the feel of an anthem, a secular credo, coming from Stephen Dedalus, who, in imitation of Joyce himself, feels the need to leave Ireland to find his true soul. The poet is a maker, of course, like a blacksmith, and the mythological character Dedalus is a craftsman who built the labyrinth and constructed a set of wings for his son Icarus. The wax in those wings melted when Icarus flew too close to the sun.  He plunged into the sea to his death.  This is where the magic of a single word comes into play:  “forge.”  For the narrator it means to strengthen metal in fire.  But it also means to fake, to counterfeit, perhaps a gentle tug at Stephen’s hubris.

This private estate was far enough away from the explosion so that its bamboos, pines, laurel, and maples were still alive, and the green place invited refugees—partly because they believed that if the Americans came back, they would bomb only buildings; partly because the foliage seemed a center of coolness and life, and the estate’s exquisitely precise rock gardens, with their quiet pools and arching bridges, were very Japanese, normal, secure; and also partly (according to some who were there) because of an irresistible, atavistic urge to hide under leaves.
—John Hersey, “Hiroshima”

Great writers fear not the long sentence, and here is proof.  If a short sentence speaks a gospel truth, then a long one takes us on a kind of journey.  This is best done when subject and verb come at the beginning, as in this example, with the subordinate elements branching to the right.  There is room here for an inventory of Japanese cultural preferences, but the real target is that final phrase, an “atavistic urge to hide under leaves,” even in the shadow of the most destructive technology ever created, the atomic bomb.

It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.
—Toni Morrison, “Sula”

I did not know this sentence, but I love it.  It expresses a kind of synesthesia, a mixing of the senses, in which a sound can also be experienced as a shape.  Add to this effect the alliteration of “loud” and “long,” and the concentric movement of sound in “circles and circles of sorrow,” and we have something truly memorable.

For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?
—Jane Austen, “Pride and Prejudice”

Who could not admire a sentence with such a clear demarcation beginning, middle, and end?  Thank you, commas. Only a single word – “neighbor” – has more than one syllable.  Austen gives us 19 words that add up to 66 letters, an astonishing efficiency of fewer than four letters per word.  But this math is invisible to the meaning. She begins by asking what at first seems like a metaphysical question: “for what do we live.” The social commentary that follows brings us crashing down to earth in a phrase, and carries us home with a delicious sense of revenge, a kind of sophisticated punch line.

It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not.
—Joan Didion, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”

Didion wrote a New Yorker essay on Hemingway that included a brilliant close reading of the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms.  There is something suggestive of that passage here, a march of time constructed from the repetition of the smallest words:  the, it, and.  Then comes a wonderful dropping off, as in a steep waterfall, as meaning flows down a stream of optimism with phrases like “sense of high social purpose” and “spring of brave hopes and national promise,” only to fall off the edge and crash upon the boulders of “it was not.”  Not once but twice.

Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation.—Ernest Hemingway, “A Farewell to Arms”

Donald Murray used to preach the 2-3-1 rule of emphasis.  Place the least emphatic words in the middle.  The second most important go at the beginning.  The most important nails the meaning at the end.  Hemingway offers a version of that here. A metaphor of flowing water is framed by two abstractions Anger and Obligation.  That fact that the metaphor is drawn from the action of the narrative makes it more effective.

There are many pleasant fictions of the law in constant operation, but there is not one so pleasant or practically humorous as that which supposes every man to be of equal value in its impartial eye, and the benefits of all laws to be equally attainable by all men, without the smallest reference to the furniture of their pockets.
—Charles Dickens, “Nicholas Nickleby”

Older sentences feel more ornate.  Long gone from our diction is the “euphuistic” style of long intricately balanced sentences that showed off the brilliance of the writer, but asked too much of the reader. But in Dickens the sentence as argument feels just right.  In short, it says that poor men cannot hope for justice.  It does so by an act of civic demythology, hitting the target again with the memorable final phrase “the furniture of their pockets.”

In many ways he was like America itself, big and strong, full of good intentions, a roll of fat jiggling at his belly, slow of foot but always plodding along, always there when you needed him, a believer in the virtues of simplicity and directness and hard labor.
—Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried”

Again we see how a longer sentence can flow from the work done near the beginning: “he was like America itself.”  Such a simile always evokes an instant question from the reader:  “How was he like America itself?”  (How hot is it, Johnny?)  The answer combines description and allegory.  He is a living microcosm of American strength and weakness.  In an unusual turn, the most interesting element rests in the middle with “a roll of fat jiggling at his belly.”

There is nothing more atrociously cruel than an adored child.—Vladimir Nabokov, “Lolita”

This sentence has the ring of familiarity to it, perhaps Nabokov’s riff on King Lear: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” Lolita may have more “best sentences” than any work on this list, but I’m not sure this is one of them. I worry about any sentence that uses an adverb for a crutch. “Cruel” is not enough for Humbert Humbert. He must magnify the cruelty with a word – atrociously — that denotes wickedness and cruelty.  It’s not the child’s fault she is adored and yet this makes her an atrocity.  Now that I have thought it through, it sounds exactly like Humber’s self-delusions after all.  Perfect.

Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there.
—Truman Capote, “In Cold Blood”

We used to call this a “periodic” sentence, that is, one in which the main action occurs at the period.  The Brits have a better name for that mark of punctuation:  the full stop. Any word that comes right before it gets special attention.  That effect is magnified by the boxcar alignment of those opening similes, along with the shift from things we can see to something more abstract – drama.  Which never stopped there, of course.  Until it did. Read more

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Monday, Mar. 24, 2014

Photo of male and female hands with pens by the monitor during discussion

A new explanatory journalism can be built on a strong foundation

I like young writers with big ideas. I met Ezra Klein last year at a public writing conference sponsored by his old newspaper, The Washington Post, and the Poynter Institute. Like his writing, Klein was sharp, smart, and quick, arguing for a new kind of approach to writing about public policy.

He said that in the digital age journalists were beginning to doubt the efficacy of what he called “the reverse pyramid,” his version of the more common “inverted pyramid.” He advocated taking more responsibility for what readers know and understand about government, policy, and all such technical issues. Sometimes this is best done in a Q&A format, or via a tidy bulleted list, forms that lead to less clutter, jargon, and bureaucratic obfuscation.

Hooray, I thought. Finally, somebody is getting it. Read more

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Friday, Dec. 20, 2013

Gift bag (Depositphotos)

For procrastinators: 6 gifts for writers

Christmas is just days away, but there’s still time to grab last-minute gifts — with rush shipping or a dash into your local retailer — for the journalists in your life, whether they’re minimalists or high maintenance.

Here are a few suggestions:

1. For the journalist with a sweet tooth

Vosges Chocolate Library confections come in chocolate gift boxes with a variety of choices, including a Milk or Dark Bacon Bar Library for $25, which combines hickory smoked bacon with milk or dark chocolate, and a Chocolate Bar Library with 12, three-ounce chocolate bars inside a Vosges signature book. While the signature book is $99, smaller chocolate boxes can be purchased for as low as $8.50 for the Mini Chocolate Bar Library.

Washington, D.C.-based journalist and author Tiffany Hawk is a big fan. “I love giving Vosges chocolate libraries to writers. They seem to be a hit, too.”

2. For the reporter looking for a little humor

It’s hard to resist the ever popular “Keep Calm” motto that dons a variety of paraphernalia. Any journalist facing a hard deadline can appreciate a T-shirt bearing the words, “Keep Calm and Write On.” On Friday, Cafe Press was advertising that it could still get the T-shirt to you by Christmas. At $24.95 plus shipping, this may be the gift that soothes the troubled scribe.

3. For the journalist needing to protect a techie investment

Covers for iPad cases are essential and ubiquitous for the coffee-drinking journalist on the go. But if you want style, look for interesting colors or textures like leather and designers like Michael Kors and Kate Spade among others. Don’t worry if you can’t afford the high-end variety that can run upwards of $130; cheaper iPad cases can be found as low as $29.99.

4. For the journo who wants to be prepared

Moleskine is always a solid choice for working journalists who need more than the standard spiral notebooks for their scribblings. The Moleskine notebooks come in sizes small enough to fit in a back pocket, making them handy for those moments of inspiration and documentation on the move.

“Some people like to have written notes if they’re working on a story,” says Los Angeles­based writer Tish Dragonette Hargens. “They come in different colors and different sizes depending on if it’s a guy or a gal. They’re classier and nicer than a [standard] notebook.”

The Moleskines can be found for $12.56 for a small, hard cover version, or $18.95 for the larger size.

5. For the reporter who needs relief while chained to the desk

Four words: Anti­-Stress Microwaveable Comfort Wrap. These wraps can be thrown in the microwave for heat then fit around the neck to ease tense muscles – the kind that accumulate after hours spent typing at a computer. The wraps can also be frozen to help reduce muscle swelling.

They are available for $9.99 at Bed, Bath and Beyond.

6. For the journalist who wants to stand out

Pick up a set of Levenger pens for the discriminating journalist. Always appreciated, the classy pens in ballpoint, fountain or Rollerball versions come in a host of colors and styles, making writing a simple pleasure. There’s even a playful Acme Crayon Retractable Rollerball pen.

If you don’t see a good fit here, other gift ideas for journalists can be found in these lists:

• Poynter’s Sam Kirkland picks tech gifts for the mobile journalist
• Society of Professonal Journalists’ gifts for newsies
And, not least of all, two new books from Poynter’s collection: Kelly McBride’s and Tom Rosenstiel’s “The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century” and Roy Peter Clark’s “How to Write Short: Wordcraft for Fast Times.”

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