Sturgis’s Law #3

Early last month I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. Here’s #3:

A good sentence is more than the sum of its parts.

We talk about “constructing” sentences as if sentences can be built block by block like houses and bridges, and in a way they can.

We learn the building blocks early on. A sentence must have a subject and a verb. It can then be dressed up with direct objects, indirect objects, prepositional phrases, and clauses of various kinds. The component parts can be dressed up with adjectives and adverbs. Two complete sentences can be linked with a conjunction — the most common ones are and, but, and or — a semicolon, or a colon.

To make matters more complicated, or more fun, depending on how you think of it, sentences are rarely entire of themselves. They exist in relation to other sentences. They can be joined into paragraphs. Even when a sentence stands alone on a line, a paragraph unto itself, the reader connects them as she moves from one to another.

Sentences can be grammatical and unclear at the same time. Here’s a snippet I quoted in “Editing Workshop, 3,” which focused on sentences:

Smith requested and received permission to publish the translation from Jones in 2005. . . . Smith, in an interview, described the text as boring.

This comes from a long nonfiction manuscript I edited earlier this year. I skidded to a halt at the end of that first sentence. It wasn’t the translation that came from Jones but the permission, and the work wasn’t published till 2008. In the second sentence, “in an interview” weakens the connection between subject and verb by coming between them. Here’s my edit:

In 2005, Smith requested and received permission from Jones to publish the translation. . . . In an interview, Smith described the text as boring.

None of the words have been changed. They’ve just been rearranged.

We can critique sentences in isolation, but often we can’t tell what’s unclear or clear enough, what’s more effective and what’s less so, unless we see it in context. Here’s an example from my novel in progress. “She” is a sixth-grader swinging on the school playground. “It” is a dog trotting down the path behind the school. She’s never seen it before.

She watched it as the swing descended and then rose again. Its head snapped to the left, then it took off up the path at a flat-out run.

Nothing wrong with that, although an overly meticulous copyeditor might argue that the “its” at the beginning of the second sentence could be taken to refer to the swing. Most readers know that swings rarely have heads, so this “it” must be the same as the one in the first sentence. But I turned the first sentence around:

As the swing descended and then rose again, she watched it. Its head snapped to the left, then it took off up the path at a flat-out run.

Moving the dependent clause to the beginning emphasizes the motion of the girl on the swing. Then the movement stops for a moment before starting up again, this time following the dog. I also liked the way the revision brought “it” and “its” together.

Play with your sentences. Rearrange them. Read them out loud, in isolation and with the sentences that precede and follow them.

Once in a while I’ll screech to a halt and gawk at a beautifully constructed sentence. Casual readers don’t generally do this, but writers and editors can be forgiven for taking a second look at an admirable sentence.

Or a not-so-admirable one. I don’t know about you, but I probably learn more from the sentences that don’t work than from the sentences that do. Identifying what doesn’t work is easy. Understanding what makes a sentence clear, effective, eloquent, whatever — this is hard. Awkward and unclear sentences clamor for attention. Good sentences just flow on by. This may be one reason editors and teachers get a reputation for being negative and critical: we naturally focus on the sentences that don’t work so well.

Remind me to flag a couple of really, really good sentences in the next manuscript I edit!

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Sturgis’s Law #2

Earlier this month I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. Here’s #2:

Given enough time to fill, even the most intelligent commentator will wind up making stupid statements.

When I was growing up, we had the news at 6 and the news at 10 (or 11), and it didn’t last more than an hour. On Sunday we had talking-head shows like Meet the Press. They didn’t last more than an hour either.

With the advent of cable TV came channels that delivered news and commentary 24/7. The quantity increased, but not the quality. Blather is cheap. Investigation and analysis are hard. There’s good stuff out there for sure, but you have to wade through a flood of drivel to find it.

Print journalism, like print in general, imposes limits. The space available is finite and the words have to fit into it. In my newspaper days, ads would often come in or be cancelled at the last minute. I’d have to cut a story on the fly to make room or figure out how to fill the hole. I learned, among other things, that no matter how well-written and well-edited a story was, I could nearly always cut two or three or four column inches out of it without doing serious harm.

sufferedThe web doesn’t impose space limits. Bloggers and others writing for the web could theoretically go on forever — but we don’t. Paradoxically perhaps, when it comes to the web the standard advice is “keep it short.” We could go on forever, but most readers won’t stick with us that long. There are limits, but they aren’t spatial.

We writers like to kick against the restrictions imposed on us by circumstance and by (you’re way ahead of me) editors, but restrictions are often a good thing. Think about it.

Tasks with deadlines usually get done before tasks without.

Cutting a 3,000-word draft to fit a 1,000-word limit often sharpens the focus and tightens the prose.

Poets make every word count because they have to. Not only do poems usually have fewer words than stories and essays (even flash fiction and nonfiction), they’re also shaped by the limitations of rhyme, rhythm, and/or meter.

Early drafts can sprawl. Sprawling is good — it sure beats being blocked. But it’s revising and editing that make the piece, whether poetry or prose, by shaping and focusing — by imposing limits.

deadline miracle

Sturgis’s Law #1

I’m taking a hint from one of my favorite bloggers, Evelyne Holingue. She’s a native French speaker who now lives in the U.S. During the month of April she went through the alphabet A to Z. For each letter, she chose a French idiom then gave its literal meaning, its idiomatic meaning, and its nearest English equivalent. It was great fun — playing with language always is! — and (dare I say it) educational.

I loved the idea of doing some kind of series. Not about idioms but about — what?

Over the years I’ve been compiling observations about writing and editing. I call them Sturgis’s Laws. Not “rules.” No way. We’ve got enough rules already. There are 17 so far, plus one unnumbered law that isn’t really a law at all — I’ll save that one for last.

So here begins an occasional series with, of course, Sturgis’s Law #1:

If you stare at any sentence long enough, it will look wrong.

Sturgis’s Law #1 has an obvious corollary. Call it Law #1a:

If you stare at any word long enough, it will look wrong.

In the editors’ forums I frequent, editors often post sentences we’re having problems with. Is this construction OK? we ask. Would you use this word in American English (AmE) or is it mostly British? Is a comma enough here, or should it be a dash? What the hell does this sentence mean?

And so on. Usually the question is answered pretty quickly, but the editorial tribe rarely stops there. We rip the sentence apart, rearrange the words, change the punctuation, and come up with clever ways of misreading a phrase that was perfectly clear at first glance.

20130227 birthday bone

If only more sentences were this tasty . . .

We’re a pack of vultures or a dog with a bone — take your pick. I’m partial to the dog-and-bone metaphor myself.

The editor who posted the query, if s/he is wise, has long since moved on, leaving the rest of us to our gnawing.

There’s much to be learned from these gnaw-fests, but at some point Sturgis’s Law #1 comes into play. If you stare at any sentence long enough, it will look wrong — and the longer you stare at it, the more things you’ll find to fiddle with.

Hesitate too long at one sentence or one word and you’ll never finish the job.

How many sentences in the typical short story, academic paper, or full-length book? How many words? How long does the typical reader linger over a typical sentence, a typical word?

Moral of story: Don’t linger too long over this sentence or that word. As the poet said, “the Moving Finger writes; and, having writ / Moves on.”

It’s good advice.

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