Sunday School for Sentences #1: Explain the Expected in Unexpected Ways

Luminous, live writing is microscopic.

Ninety percent of good writing is getting the tiny, exacting, laborious details right. Or wrong. Jarring, syncopated writing can be delicious, too.

When I work with other writers and bloggers, they tell me that writing is hard, they don’t have enough time, they don’t feel inspired, and they’re not sure that their writing matters.

When I hear this, I hear:

+ “I’m waiting for Inspiration to overcome me and the writing to pour forth.”
+ “I’m waiting for writing to be easy.”
+ “The conditions of my life are not ideal.”
+ “I don’t have time to write for hours and hours a day.”
+ “If I’m not actively writing for hours and hours a day on the Next Great Novel or A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, then my writing doesn’t count.”

And all of this adds up to these two conclusions:

So why bother?

and

 I can’t. I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.

Neither of these conclusions yield any writing much less good writing. When attempting to create dazzling copy it is useful to avoid formulas that add up to writers block.

And so, my darling, if you’re been thinking any of these awful things, then I have great news for you.

You’re wrong.

You don’t need inspiration; most writing will NEVAH be easy; your life will never yield easily to writing (you will ALWAYS have distractions more appealing or dictatorial than hours alone at the keyboard); you DO have time to write every day; and you don’t have to be working at A Very Important Work to be working at getting better – and becoming a faster and more polished writer will be very materially useful when you DO take on your great work.

And I know this from experience. The actual process of writing – of flowing, creating – is short, easy and pleasurable. But the rest of it is punishing. But it can be done, and done every day, and you don’t need inspiration, muses, a room of your own, loads of “free” time, or divine conviction.

You just need to do it. And the “it” I’m talking about is less about writing and more about editing.

Editing is exhausting, oft-dreaded, and fairly unsexy – but editing does have a redeeming quality: it can be done any time, any where. It simply must be done. Over and over and over.

I’m convinced that the secret to being a good writer is editing – and most of us don’t do enough of it.

Here’s how I usually write:

I sit down and pour it out. I don’t edit myself or criticize. I just let it come. This is a very pleasurable experience. This accounts for approximately ten percent of my writing time.

And then I edit. I polish. I look for ways to make my prose active and engaging. I substitute verbs. I delete adjectives and adverbs. (Who am I kidding? I add more.) I invert comparisons, I introduce and expand metaphors, I read aloud so as to stalk and kill extraneous words. I research the etymology of words. I riff and add poetic flourishes. I fix my punctuation. I curse my addiction to hyphens and parenthetical asides. I leave it. I come back to it. I make it worse. I make it better. I find its rhythm. I spell-check rhythm. I understate things, I overstate things, I use the word “and” instead of commas, I overuse commas. I introduce emotional tension. I lie. I say the exact opposite of what I mean, but I place that lie in a paragraph of truth so that it hisses and won’t lie still. I keep working at it. I edit. Endlessly.

This is work. This is labour. It is pleasurable in an abstract way – when I get past the dread and the difficulty and the unremitting and acute knowledge that my vision as a writer outstrips my abilities.

A complete lack of faith in our skills and an insatiable desire to improve is the hell to which writers must acclimatize.

This accounts for ninety percent of my writing time. Because I believe that great writers write great sentences, almost all of my writing time is dedicated to wrestling my insecurities and futzing with the details.

And so my advice to other writers is unremarkable:

  • Write every day – it can be an e-mail, a letter, some phrases, pretty words, a list…just write something.
  • Edit more than you write.
  • Futz with the details.
  • Try not make your life an exercise in self-hatred because writing is already designed to work that muscle to exhaustion.

But my most cherished bit ‘o wisdom is this:

To improve your writing, you must strive to get your sentences either very right or very wrong.

And that’s what the next sixteen Sundays are all about. Sentences. Futzing. Details. Putting your precious prose under a microscope.

Each Sunday until the end of the year I’ll examine a stunning sentence and tell you what I love about it, what I learned from it, how I use what I learned in my own writing, and how you can too. And then together we’ll hold clinics in the comments.

———————–

Sunday School for Sentences #1: Explain the Expected in Unexpected Ways

We all know what Siddhartha could have written. He could have written that her thong sat higher than her jeans and added snark about the dangers of low-rise jeans and vampy panties. That would have been predictable – and utterly forgettable.

What he did, however, was not forgettable.

I read this sentence months ago, and I regularly cite it to students and clients as an example of  dazzling sentence. This sentence is a story in microcosm.  This sentence is excellent.

What Siddhartha did right:

  • He used understatement.
  • He described something in an almost mechanical, factual way and let the reader fill in the emotive blanks.
  • He used unexpected detail – “minimalist approach to undergarments” – to make a sentence sing.

What I took loved and learned from this sentence:

Try to say the usual in unusual ways. Use unexpected detail. Use understatement. Sometimes straight description, without emotional interpretation, can be completely compelling.

How I Used these Techniques In My Own Writing

Saying the Expected in Unexpected Ways (Unexpected Detail)

In this very piece, I laboured over a couple of sentences. In each of them I tried to follow Siddhartha’s example and say ordinary things in extraordinary ways.

And so I wrote:

  1. When attempting to create dazzling copy it is useful to avoid formulas that add up to writers block.
  2. A complete lack of faith in our skills and an insatiable desire to improve is the hell to which writers must acclimatize.
  3. Try not make your life an exercise in self-hatred because writing is already designed to work that muscle to exhaustion.

Understatement

In all three sentences, although perhaps not obvious to a more minimalist writer, I dialed down the emotional content.

(Overstatement is my natural go-to, so whenever I dial it down, even a little, I think I’m crafting my prose.)

In sentence #1, I tried to use understatement by saying “it is useful to avoid” rather than something overstated like “You MUST, at all costs, avoid…”.

In sentence #2 although I use overstatement (“hell”) I pair that charged subject with “acclimatize” – a neutral, bland verb. And so, with that verb choice, I’m at least waving at factual, objective reporting.

Factual Reporting

These sentences don’t really use factual reporting (except possibly in #2, see above) but the dispassionate tone of them tips their respective hats to factual reporting and is at odds with the passion inherent to all three subjects:

  • writer’s block (ouch! avoid avoid avoid!);
  • the pain of creation (no wonder many writers call their books their babies and compare the act of writing and editing to pregnancy and childbirth); and
  • the loneliness and insecurity that accompanies creating something from nothing.

Mismatching tone and subject is one of my favourite techniques, because it is…unexpected.

Which, of course, is what I loved about Siddhartha’s sentence in the first place.

——————-

And you?

What did you like about this sentence?

How will you use understatement, unexpected detail and factual reporting to light up your own sentences? (Examples, please!)

————–

Sunday School for Sentences will be a sixteen-part series. Missed one? Here they are:

  • Prologue: God, Sex and Dazzling Sentences
    1. Sunday School for Sentences #1: Explain the Expected in Unexpected Ways
    2. Sunday School for Sentences #2: The (Textual) Reverse Cowgirl
    3. Sunday School for Sentences #3: Object Lessons (from Kanye West and JD Salinger)
    4. Sunday School for Sentences #4: How to Give Good Quote
    5. Sunday School For Sentences #5: Why You Should Write Bad Poetry
    6. Sunday School for Sentences #6: Two Damn Fine Writing Tips
    7. Sunday School for Sentences #7: There Are No Magic Words
    8. Sunday School for Sentences #8: How To Execute a Climax or Series of Climaxes. I’m talking About Writing. Mostly.
    9. Sunday School for Sentences #9: Thread the Grommets, Lace the Corset, Feed the Rabbits
    10. Sunday School For Sentences #10 – Work It
    11. Sunday School for Sentences #11: The Pigs In Space Edition
    12. Sunday School for Sentences #12: Screw SEO. I Write (Wackadoo Titles) for PEOPLE, Not Search Engines. And So Should You.
    13. Sunday School for Sentences #13: How to Write an Intimate Cosmology of Cheesecake, Cheesecake Shots (or not) and Shoplifting
    14. Sunday School for Sentences #14: What Picasso And Dave Chappelle Know about Writing. For Realz. 
  • About the author

    Kelly Diels I'm Kelly Diels. I'm a writer, the founder of Cleavage (The Lines that Shape Us), and I wrote this blog post just for you. You can also find me on Twitter and darlin', please do. xoxo, K

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