Thursday, May 17, 2018

Beginning a Sentence with a Verb

Start sentences with verbs from time to time. To write well, use various openings. Should you rely on the rules of pseudo-grammarians, your writing will stagnate. Are you understanding me?

The four sentences above all begin with verbs, a perfectly acceptable technique. I raise this point because a student in one of my recent writing classes proclaimed, "You can't begin a sentence with a verb." She was wrong. Writers far greater than you or I have done so. I corrected her with examples like the ones in the first paragraphPen and the Pad expertly discusses this point in detail.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Documentation Help Available at INSTRKTIV

Business and technical writers continually experience the challenge of creating understandable, reliable documentation standards for readers in their organization and across their industry. INSTRKTIV proposes to be a game changer in this endeavor by offering support in developing documents, such as user manuals, help files, procedures, and video instructions.

The advice this global organization renders on its website alone is legion. For instance, INSTRKTIV Director Ferry Vermeulen recently published "Technical Writing Tools: The Ultimate Choice of 83 Experts (2018 Update)". The article and video  provides insights from 80 industry experts responding to a question about their preferred technical writing tools. Hearing and reading about their responses will set newcomers to the field on the right course toward achieving writing proficiency. It will also validate the mindset of seasoned technical writers while offering them a fresh perspective in sharpening their craft.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 20: Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell, the English philosopher, historian, and critic, among other roles, remains a controversial figure long after his death at age 97 nearly half a century ago. One inarguable point about the 1950 Nobel laureate in literature, however, is his exceptionally exquisite yet accessible style. As a case in point, he begins his brief 1924 essay, "Life in the Middle Ages," with the prelude to his premise:
Our picture of the Middle Ages, perhaps more than that of other periods, has been falsified to suit our own prejudices. Sometimes the picture has been too black, sometimes too rosy.
He continues the paragraph by giving three romanticized historical viewpoints, one of unremitting barbarism, the second of knightly chivalry, and the third of ecclesiastical zeal. Then he starts his second paragraph with a concession:
In all these views there are elements of truth: the Middle Ages were rude, they were knightly, they were pious.
After acknowledging his literary forebears, Russell lays down his premise:
But if we wish to see a period truly, we must not see it contrasted with our own, whether to its advantage or disadvantage: we must try to see it as it was to those who lived in it. Above all, we must remember that, in every epoch, most people are ordinary people, concerned with their daily bread rather than with the great themes of which historians treat.
Russell uses many persuasive devices in this piece. He makes a startling claim in the first sentence, uses sensory language in the second sentence (black and rosy), offers a concession at the top of the second paragraph, makes a proposition in the following sentence, and doubles down on the proposition by issuing an admonishment in the next sentence. 

Writers wanting to write purposefully can count on more of the same in any of Russell's dozens of books, including A History of Western Philosophy, Religion and Science, The Problems of Philosophy, The Conquest of Happiness, and Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 19: Langston Hughes

In "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," which first appeared in The Nation (1926), Langston Hughes begins with this paragraph:
One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America—this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.
What a start! Hughes dissects the young black poet's comments three times over. He follows with a statement that both pities and excoriates him. His third sentence condemns the young man to a future of artistic mediocrity. Then Hughes reverses course to set up the theme so aptly described in the essay title by asserting such compromises for an American black artist are inevitable or a Sisyphean fate awaits the one who remains true to his race.

Hughes immediately humanizes his essay by using a simple comment he once heard. Writers are always listening, always remembering something, always waiting for the right time to use it. So what matters here? It is Hughes's unsettling balance of detachment, sympathy, and rage that brings us into his narrative.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 18: Carl Sagan

Science author extraordinaire Carl Sagan wrote a thought-provoking essay “The Environment: Where Does Prudence Lie?” in Billions, and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium (1997). He chooses to open it by painting a picture of the deceptively beautiful facade of polluting technologies:
There’s a certain moment at twilight when the aircraft contrails are pink. And if the sky is clear, their contrast with the surrounding blue is unexpectedly lovely. The Sun has already set and there’s a roseate glow at the horizon, a reminder of where the Sun is hiding. But the jet aircraft are so high up that they can still see the Sun—quite red, just before setting. The water blown out from their engines instantly condenses. At the frigid temperatures of high altitude, each engine trails as small, linear cloud, illuminated by the red rays of the setting Sun. 
The point Sagan makes with this vivid scene stays with us through the rest of the article as he grapples with difficult, human-made challenges facing our planet.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 17: Lewis Thomas

Physician and writer Lewis Thomas leads off his renowned essay "The Lives of a Cell," which appears in a 1974 essay collection of the same name, with these sentences:
We are told that the trouble with Modern Man is that he has been trying to detach himself from nature. He sits at the topmost tiers of polymer, glass, and steel, dangling his pulsating legs, surveying at a distance the writhing life of the planet.
Thomas immediately sets a stage that we readers know he does not accept. By the next paragraph, he makes clear that "We are the delicate part" of the universe. In this and the other 29 essays in Lives of a Cell, Thomas humbles our egocentric worldview by emphasizing time and again how cells connect humans, animals, plants, and even the planet as a singular entity. He does so in the above two sentences by giving us a false sense of security that we are "pulsating" with life while all else around us is "writhing." In being set us by with this implausible scenario, we are eager to know how we should really be thinking.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 16: F. Scott Fitzgerald

Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work—the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside—the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don't show their effect all at once.
Thus begins F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1936 essay "The Crack-Up," a self-examination of the author's encounter with regret, ambition, fame, failure, retreat, collapse, resignation, and recovery, which appeared as a three-part series in Esquire ("Part 1: The Crack-Up" in February, "Part 2: Pasting It Together" in March, and "Part 3: Handle with Care" in April). 

The opening hooks readers because of its surprisingly self-pitying vantage point: the outside blows destroy one's inside, and do so dramatically. The story shifts abruptly from location to confrontation to observation to reservation to hesitation to determination, but it does so with an elegance of expression that established Fitzgerald's literary reputation. If these are the meanderings of a man dealing with a crack-up, he renders them with a flair that few of his contemporaries shared. "The Crack-Up" is worth a read for anyone looking for ideas on how to write an autobiography.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 15: Walker Percy

Walker Percy's essay "New Orleans, Mon Amour" amounts to a philosophical love letter to the city that serves as the setting for his first and most famous novel, The Moviegoer. Percy imaginatively begins the article, which first appeared in Harper's (September 1968), with this paragraph:
If the American city does not go to hell in the next few years, it will not be the likes of Dallas or Grosse Point which will work its deliverance, or Berkeley or New Haven, or Santa Fe or La Jolla. But New Orleans might. Just as New Orleans hit upon jazz, the only unique American contribution to art, and hit upon it almost by accident and despite itself, it could also hit upon the way of the hell which has overtaken the American city. 
In the paragraphs that follow the opening, Percy gives every reason to believe that New Orleans will, in fact, be the first American city to go to hell. He stacks the intellectual deck so fiercely against his beloved city that a historically uniformed or linguistically careless reader might conclude The Big Easy is doomed to an abominable self-destruction. 

But not so. Percy was a lifelong resident of the Deep South, save a journey north to obtain a medical degree from Columbia University, practice medicine in New York City, and convalesce from tuberculous in Saranac Lake, New York. He cared deeply about New Orleans, writing about it in fiction and nonfiction. His admiration of the city despite its complexities, calamities, and perversities is legendary. You can read "New Orleans, Mon Amour" Percy's 1991 nonfiction collection Signposts in a Strange Land.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 14: Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf begins her 1-page, 2-paragraph, 9-sentence, 334-word introduction to "The Common Reader" with this observation:
There is a sentence in Dr. Johnson’s Life of Gray which might well be written up in all those rooms, too humble to be called libraries, yet full of books, where the pursuit of reading is carried on by private people.
 In this brief piece, Woolf has only one point to make, subtle, complex, and profound though it be, and she uses 39 words, or 11 percent, of her message to directly quote her reference, Samuel Johnson, using it as a springboard for that point. If you want to know the Johnson's sentence, you'll have to read the first chapter of "The Common Reader" yourself.

What interests me is not so much Johnson's observation, but  Woolf's remarkable, circuitous 95-word final sentence, which serves as a nod to Johnson, a praise of literature, and an appreciation of us, the common reader. You can read "The Common Reader" here.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 13: William Styron

Reading a William Styron essay is like meditating on a topic, the very objective a great writer hopes to achieve for readers. As a case in point, read these first two sentences of "An Elegy for F. Scott Fitzgerald" (New York Review of Books, November 28, 1968):
It is perhaps inevitable that all very good writers seem to be able to inspire the most vehement personal reactions. They might be quite dead but their spirits remain somehow immortally fleshed, and we are capable of talking about them as we talk about devoted friends, or about a despised neighbor who has just passed out of earshot.
So what is Styron doing in these 58 words to keep us engaged?

1. He slips in slowly. Leading with the protracted 15-word It is perhaps inevitable that all very good writers seem to be able to inspire, instead of the more concise 5-word Great writers seem to inspire. In doing so, he shows a great reliance on his reputation, a confidence that we will read on regardless of how circuitous a path he sets for us. He also uses this marker language to get us into a reflective mood.

2. He hedges heftily. Words like perhaps, seem, quite, and somehow not only prevents an absolutist viewpoint, but adds a feeling of bewildered existentialism to the opening.

3. He shifts suddenly. The absolute most vehement shows a shifting in gears from the hedging that preceded it, keeping us in a state of surprise.

4. He ditches an unnecessary transition. Styron trusts that his readers know the sentences following the first one are examples of the first, so he doesn't need the useless for example to lead the second sentence.

5. He mixes in the mysterious. Styron's use of somehow in this context evokes the enigmatic nature of writers, baffling us about the inexplicable circumstances that make us react so viscerally to them.

6. He conjures metaphysical imagery. Words such as spirits, immortally, and fleshed elicit flashes of the divine.

7. He uses subtle humor. Before we can ever wonder what it might feels like to be quite dead, we laugh at the thought that he would place these words alongside each other.

8. He shifts person. Styron makes shifts frequently here, notably moving from they (the writers) to we (the readers), and from plural (devoted friends) to singular (a despised neighbor) advancing a conversational style, as if he is sitting on our couch talking to us.

9. He shows our sinister nature. Only when we lose our reason can our most vehement nature emerge, and only when we are at our conniving worst can we unload scornful remarks about a despised neighbor who has just passed out of earshot.

The essay is a worthwhile read not only for a great writer's provocative homage to another great writer but as a study of what makes good writing tick, and makes us readers tock.