Sunday School for Sentences #2: The (Textual) Reverse Cowgirl


As a child, I walked to school, took the bus or – later, when I developed breasts and the ability to use them – ferreted rides from
geeky boys with hopeful cars and V8 hearts.


This sentence is mine and perhaps is an odd one to use as an example because I’m not entirely  satisfied with it. It is awkward, over-punctuated and a little self-conscious. But working on this sentence taught me something I immediately knew was captivating.

And I was right: when I ran this piece, I received several e-mails and comments specifically quoting this sentence and saying things like “Best. Sentence. Ever.”

Which is always nice. Ego-driven writers (hello reflection! You’re looking fiiiiiiiine!) like that sort of thing.

What I Did:

When I first wrote this sentence, it looked like this:

As a child, I walked to school or took the bus, or later when I got breasts and learned how to use them, weaseled rides from geeky boys with V8 cars and hopeful hearts.

Kinda sweet, but nothing remarkable. And so I played with it.

The markup:

As a child, I walked to school or took the bus or – later, when I got developed breasts and learned how the ability to use them,-weaseled ferreted rides from geeky boys with V8 hopeful cars and hopeful V8 hearts.

The clean copy:

As a child, I walked to school, took the bus or – later, when I developed breasts and the ability to use them – ferreted rides from geeky boys with hopeful cars and V8 hearts.

To arrive at the more storied, emotionally resonant version of this sentence, I

  1. Tightened up the prose by shrinking phrases and deleting extraneous words.
  2. Broke up the long sentence with dashes (I don’t necessarily recommend this).
  3. Changed “weaseled” to “ferreted”.
  4. Switched the order of the adjectives.

What I Kinda Like About These Techniques:

Last week, I declared that good writing is “microscopic” and this example demonstrates what I meant. By using more inventive verbs – like “ferreted” – you take an ordinary sentence and twist it into something quirky and telling.  And, by reversing or inverting adjectives in a parallel list (like I did with “V8″ and “hopeful”), you create layers of meaning and emotional friction.

(I call this move  - switching the direction of my adjectives – my Textual Reverse Cowgirl. Because I live to be salacious. Humour me.)

There’s also another, markedly less tawdry lesson here about how you can tell an entire story using mundane objects (V8 cars) – JD Salinger was genius at this –  but I’ll pick that up next week.

How To Use this Trick:

These two things – using inventive verbs and adjectives, and inverting the order of adjectives in a parallel list – are easy to do. You write, and then you edit (sensing a pattern here?).

  • While editing, look critically at your verbs and run through substitutes until you find the one with the most meaning, emotional resonance, or surprise.
  • While editing, look for parallel lists and see if switching the order of adjectives would add a dash of sweet ‘n sour to the sentence. If it does, do it. Do it now.

Simple, yes? And effective. All you need to do is make sure you’ve got time to edit and play with yourself prose.

—————

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

    Want more Cleavage? Direct to your in-box?

    You naughty minx, you.

    Go ahead, get your LOVE LETTERS + WILDLY UNREASONABLE ADVICE    every Sunday by e-mail.

    %d bloggers like this: