The secret to becoming a great writer is to write all day every day. The secret to writing all day every day is not to let yourself get bogged down in mechanics and other minutia. The secret to becoming a great writer is to let yourself get bogged down in mechanics and other minutia. But then you are not writing every day, and if you are, you are not great. The secret to becoming a great writer is to become a mediocre writer. Compromise. Write freely part of the day. Deal with mechanics and minutia part of the day. When you are a mediocre writer, continue until you are a good writer. When you are a good writer, continue until you are a great writer. When you are a great writer, come teach me because I have no idea what I am doing.
When writing, it is often the simplest words that leave a lasting impression on the reader’s mind. The complicated scholarly sounding words that people use to show that they have a large vocabulary seldom stick in a reader’s mind. I mean, what does “discombobulation” mean to you? How would you remember something described with that word?
What would it look like?
You don’t know any of this. That is why simpler words are better. Take the word “sharp.” You know what sharp is.
What would it look like? Something with a point or an edge.
Smell like? Possibly an oiled blade.
Taste like? Well, you better not try it. You might end up tasting your own blood.
Feel like? Uh… sharp!? Duh!
Sound like? A yelp of pain if you are not careful.
Words like “sharp” that describe one of the senses—sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing—are referred to in writing as imagery. Imagery is easily pictured by the reader and is much more memorable for a reader to remember. Here are two examples of couplets you might wish to write:
Out of the depths of despair
My heart comes up for repair
She twisted the knife into my chest
But I have given my heart time to rest.
They both have loosely the same meanings. The first couplet makes little use of imagery. The second couplet uses more vivid imagery. Which can you more easily picture? Which one are you more likely to remember?
(Independent Clauses are in red, dependent clauses are in green, and subordinating conjunctions are in blue.)
The plumber knew he had his next job when he answered the phone to the frantic tones of a woman’s voice and the gurgling of a backed up commode.
After a spark from the loose wiring in the old electrical outlet caught the building on fire, the fireworks factory went off like a Roman candle.
Because the two politicians in the local election were bickering like an old married couple, all of the reporters in town and a few from surrounding cities had more work than they could handle.
The wind swirled as the storm intensified and knocked a tree down in my neighbor’s yard.
At the precise time that Jim had fallen to sleep, the dog next door began to yelp.
While Shirley was working on her homework, she was unable to concentrate.
The thirteen coworkers quibbled even though they were unanimously able to decide on what they were going to order for lunch.
Whenever you finish reading this list, you will know slightly more than you did before.
Although Kimberly did all of her work, the rest of the people in her group contributed little to the assignment.
This list is the best one you have ever read despite opinions you may have to the contrary.
The simple sentence, Marry, the girl with curly blond hair, fiddled with the dust in her pocket from deep out in left field, gives the reader of this sentence vivid details about Marry but it still leaves the reader with an incomplete picture of the scene, and the reader is left to fill in all the missing information from his or her own imagination. For the purposes of clear writing, we want to maximize the amount of information that we give the reader while minimizing the room for the reader’s imagination to hijack the meaning of the sentence. It would be easy to add more information by adding sentences before and/or after the sentence about Marry. If we write, Billy swung hard driving the ball toward the fence. Marry, the girl with curly blond hair, fiddled with the dust in her pocket from deep out in left field, the reader comes out with the image of Marry as an inattentive baseball player. If we write, The teacher asked Marry to work out the math problem for the entire class. Marry, the girl with curly blond hair, fiddled with dust in her pocket from deep out in left field. The reader comes out with the image of Marry as a confused math student. In both instances we end up with clear two sentence vignettes with drastically different meanings. However, for the purposes of this exercise, we want to explore ways to clarify this sentence by changing it from a simple sentence to a complex or compound sentence.
Here we will explore complex sentences. A complex sentence is a sentence that contains a dependent clause and an independent clause. An independent clause is a clause that can stand alone as a simple sentence. An independent clause has a subject, a verb, and a predicate. For example, the sentence, Marry, the girl with the curly blond hair, fiddled with the dust in her pocket from deep out in left field, is an independent clause. Marry, the girl with the curly blond hair, is the subject. Fiddled is the verb. With the dust in her pocket from deep out in left field is the predicate. Other examples of independent clauses are: The teacher asked Marry to work out the math problem for the entire class, and Billy swung hard driving the ball toward the fence. A dependent clause is simply an independent clause that is preceded by a qualifying word or phrase. Examples of qualifying words or phrases are before, after, when, right about the time that, etc.….
If we add these qualifying words or phrases to our example sentences from above, we come up with these dependent clauses:
After the teacher asked Marry to work out the math problem for the entire class
Right about the time that Billy swung hard driving the ball toward the fence
The resulting dependent clauses now sound like they are missing something. When a qualifying word or phrase is added to an independent clause, the resulting clause becomes a sentence fragment and can no longer stand alone. The resulting dependent clause must be attached to a standalone sentence either at the beginning or the end of an independent clause. When the dependent clause comes before the independent clause, the clauses must be attached with a comma. Here are our two possible examples:
After the teacher asked Marry to work out the math problem for the entire class, Marry, the girl with the curly blond hair, fiddled with the dust in her pocket from deep out in left field. And Right about the time that Billy swung hard driving the ball toward the fence, Marry, the girl with the curly blond hair, fiddled with the dust in her pocket from deep out in left field.
When the dependent clause comes after the independent clause, the clauses are put together without a comma. Here are our two possible examples:
Marry, the girl with the curly blond hair, fiddled with the dust in her pocket from deep out in left field after the teacher asked Marry to work out the math problem for the entire class. And Marry, the girl with the curly blond hair, fiddled with the dust in her pocket from deep out in left field right about the time that Billy swung hard driving the ball toward the fence.
Now that we have seen how we can use complex sentences to lead the reader to clearly understand our intended meaning of the sentence, Marry, the girl with the curly blond hair, fiddled with the dust in her pocket from deep out in left field, we can go on to explore ways this can be done using compound sentences.
The fabled grey house of Bunker City loomed from its high seat atop Taylor’s Hill.
I found myself staring at the red numbers blinking twelve O’clock from the alarm on my nightstand.
The chair creaked under the weight of the tall man waiting for his coffee.
She took deep slow breathes through and made her daily run in less than ten minutes.
Three of them out of the four had found their way into prestigious colleges.
The painting of a red heart made of ribbon held a special place on her wall.
The small clay pieces that his son had sculpted the night before sat drying in a box on the kitchen table.
The teacher found a way of procrastinating with sample sentences in a word document.
The ugly home grown tomatoes were beautiful sitting atop a sandwich.
Sometimes, writing simple sentences is much harder than it sounds.
The simple sentence is the basic model of a sentence. A simple sentence contains a subject, a verb, and a predicate and creates a clause. The subject of a sentence is the person, place, thing, or idea that the sentence is about. The verb is the action that the subject is taking. The predicate is the person place or thing the subject is acting on. And a clause is one single idea created by the linking of subject, verb and predicate. Clear writing begins with the simple sentence.
The simple sentence can be easily summed up in an example we might see in grammar school. She played ball. She is the subject of the sentence. Played is the verb. Ball is the predicate. And all three parts of the sentence create a clause. Therefore, She played ball is a perfectly serviceable simple sentence. But as a standalone sentence, She played ball, does not convey very much information. In order to make this standalone sentence as clear as possible, we might be prompted to ask: Who is she? What kind of ball did she play? And exactly how was she playing ball?
Changing the ambiguous pronoun, she, to the proper noun, Marry, brings a little more clarity to the sentence. Marry played ball. However, we could give even more clarity to the subject by describing something about Marry. If we decide that our subject, Marry, is a girl with curly blond hair, the image of the girl becomes much clearer. Marry, the girl with curly blond hair played ball. Now, we know who the subject of the sentence is, but we are still left to wonder about the other two questions: What kind of ball did she play? And exactly how was she playing ball?
We can change the predicate to decide what kind of ball she was playing. If we decide that Marry is playing baseball, the sentence becomes: Marry, the girl with curly blond hair, played baseball. But we could do even better than that if we applied just a little knowledge of the game of baseball and showed what position Marry was playing. If Marry was not just playing in left field, but she was playing far out in left field, we come up with an even clearer picture. Marry, the girl with curly blond hair, played way out in deep left field. Now that we have who the subject is and what the predicate is, we know much more about the sentence. However, we can still look at the verb to decide if the sentence is as clear as possible.
If we use our assumptions about the game of baseball and how it is likely to be played to guide our understanding of this standalone sentence, we may be tempted to believe that the sentence, Marry, the girl with the curly blond hair, played way out in left field is as clear as possible. But we can still look at how exactly did she play? Was she paying rapt attention to the game or was she goofing off? We could come up with two drastically different interpretations of the girl’s character just by coming up with a more specific verb than played. But for now, we will go with focused on the ball instead of played. And we come up with: Marry, the girl with the curly blond hair, focused on the ball, from deep out in left field.
Making a list of examples of simple sentences from least clarity to most clarity we come up with:
She played ball.
Marry played ball.
Marry, the girl with the curly blond hair, played ball.
Marry, the girl with the curly blond hair, played way out in left field.
Marry, the girl with the curly blond hair, stared at the ball from way out in left field.
But what if instead of Marry, the girl with the curly blond hair, stared at the ball from way out in left field we came up with Marry, the girl with curly blond hair, fiddled with the dust in her pocket from deep out in left field. In the first of these two example sentences, Marry is clearly intent on helping her team win. In the second of the two example sentences, Marry is not paying attention and if the reader decides that from way out in left field is a metaphor than she may not even be playing baseball at all.
So if we came up with Marry, the girl with curly blond hair, fiddled with the dust in her pocket from deep out in left field as a standalone sentence, and we wanted to create as much clarity as possible without changing a word in our example sentence, we would have to venture into complex and compound sentences.
That night, I didn’t drink. As bad as I
Wanted to. As bad as my life seemed at
The time. I just looked at the paint on the
Wall. And there next to the raised bead where the
Shipwright had welded together the two
Sheets of steel was a raised lump in the paint.
Pressing my finger against the lump, it
Deformed with a slight crunch. It was my fault.
I had been neglecting her ignoring
The rust near the waterline. The blotches
Dripping down like fat tears of blood. In the
Morning, I would address the problems with
A needle gun and a few coats of paint.
With love and hard work she would forgive me.
Black and white flocked on the green field honking
And scratching lazy through the grass. Mother
Sat by and watched (or didn’t) as she was
Posing for hundreds of pictures in her
Long dress and sun hat hoping for the one
Lucky one from that perfect angle that
Makes her look prettier and a hundred
Pounds lighter. Out in the field, her son, the
Angry fat kid tried his best to hit the
Geese as he lumbered toward the flock and heaved
The ball in an arcing directionless
Toss. Her fat kid with a football chased the
Flock into flight. Haphazard and frightened,
They were all getting some needed exercise.
I walked out on the stage and choked down the
Blood filled consciousness of style. The red
In the faces of the people in the
Crowd. The halos on their crown. The yelling
In unison to overpower the
P.A. But this language serves. And willing,
I forgot how I fought through the echo
Of these cracked bricks of wall to have my voice
Heard. My religious rhetoric couldn’t
Belie fart fetish inconsistencies
To discuss the blank painted few and the
Furniture decorations revolving
Completely around far chicken and the
Ways that these things disprove the narrative.
I needed to write for my daughter and
The blood on the porthole that was covered
In Neosporin. But that style of
Writing comes from the black volcanic beach
Sand in the decorated card that I
Always keep in my vest pocket on the
Days that I feel the need to dress well. But
When real men come down to real writing it
Is time to get some man style robot-
Suit sleep to calm the clink and chunk offered
By impulse sensibilities. Sure I
Could brainstorm a stand of trees that clicked pay
Now on the creeping vines of kudzu in
Autumn nights, but who has time for all that?