Thursday, February 15, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 9: T. S. Eliot

"What I have to say is largely in support of the following propositions: Literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint."

This opening sentence from T. S. Eliot's essay "Religion and Literature" reminds us that we lose nothing by getting to the point with our premise in our first sentence, as long as we skillfully support that premise.

Here Eliot argues that literary standards alone are not enough to judge a work of literature; a moral standard is necessary, one that coheres with an ethically sound relationship with society. Eliot's proposition is arguable, of course, but his the high quality of his trenchant style is not. 

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 8: Ernest Hemingway

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. 
With these 26 words, the first sentence of the 1952 Pulitzer Prize-winning short novel The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway plainly summarizes old man Santiago's lonely present (who fished alone) and unsuccessful recent past (he had gone eighty-four days now). Some fishermen might actually enjoy fishing alone, taking such an activity as a sign of success. But Hemingway quickly intensifies Santiago's misfortunes and loneliness in the next two sentences by mentioning how a boy, whose parents forbade him from fishing with the old man, pitied him, helping him onshore at dusk to carry his fishing gear whenever he could. The last sentence of the paragraph, describing not Santiago but the sail of his skiff, epitomizes his failure:
The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.
The word the preceding flag in this sentence is especially striking. If Hemingway had used a, he would have generalized Santiago's malaise, but the makes clear that only one flag of such futility can possible exist. 

Such simple words, rendered powerful by the imagery they convey, are what made The Old Man and the Sea a great but sad adventure story when I read it at age 14, and a tale of a man's existential defiance in the face of certain defeat when I reread it as a college student at age 21. Recalling this passage, I urge writing students to use plain language because the subject matter they need to deliver is complex enough.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 7: Robert Penn Warren

Why do we read fiction? The answer is simple. We read it because we like it. And we like it because fiction, as an image of life, stimulates and gratifies our interest in life. — Robert Penn Warren, "Why Do We Read Fiction?" The Saturday Evening Post, October 20, 1962
By the time Mr. Warren wrote this fascinating essay, he had already won two of his three Pulitzer Prizes, one for fiction (in 1947 for All the King's Men) and one for poetry (in 1958 for Promises: Poems 1954-1956). He had already co-authored with Cleanth Brooks Understanding Poetry (1939), Understanding Fiction (1943), and Fundamentals of Good Writing: A Handbook of Modern Rhetoric (1950), textbooks used throughout American universities. Most editors of nationally published magazines would not grant writers the license to write the first three sentences of an article with 5, 4, and 7 simple words. But those writers are not Robert Penn Warren. Then his fourth sentence, at 18 words, more than doubles the length of the paragraph with more sophisticated words (stimulates and gratifies) and complex ideas (image of life and interest in life). 

Warren might have justified using such plain language by saying that the article ruminates about children's fascination with literature and that he had a younger audience in mind. I prefer to think that he chose to open with such an uncluttered style because, with his reputation as an author and English professor, he could.  His transparent approach here is a good reminder to all of us who need to write at work or for publication. Get to the point; keep it simple.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 6: Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein is renowned for his scientific genius, but he does not get enough credit for his rhetorical power. In an article on education in The New York Times (October 5, 1952), he wrote:
It is not enough to teach man a specialty. Through it he may become a kind of useful machine but not a harmoniously developed personality. It is essential that the student acquire an understanding of and a lively feeling for values. He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and the morally good.
With plain language and brief yet fluent sentences, Einstein argues gracefully against the culture of efficiency that advocates for a vocational schooling, a system which merely prepares people for a technical skill, one which may become obsolete, rendering the preparatory education useless.

Expressing ideas directly with simple words and short sentences equates to a powerful style.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 5: Helen Keller

In "The Simplest Way to Be Happy," a 1933 article appearing in Home, Helen Keller wrote:
My theme is that happiness is not the work of magic. Happiness is the final and perfect fruit of obedience to the laws of life.
In that 25-word, 2-sentence opening to her descriptive essay Keller uses three hallmarks of getting to the point: simple language (magic, fruit, life), repetition (happiness twice), and contrast (is not and is). Such is the stuff of an engaging style.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 4: David Carr

Think about the emotional climate of America in early December 2001, around the time when the January 2002 issue of The Atlantic hit the newsstands. That issue included David Carr's article, "The Futility of 'Homeland Defense,'" which began with these words:
Get over thinking that America can be made safe. Defending a country as big and commercially robust as the United States raises profound, and probably insurmountable, issues of scale.  
Americans were anxious about preventing another 9/11, yet Carr was there to boldly remind us that the USA must defend 3.8 million square miles in which 300 million people live, 350 million non-citizens visit annually, 700 million pieces of mail and 2 billion tons of cargo arrive daily from overseas (remember Anthrax?), 86 stadiums seat over 60,000 people, and 50 of the tallest 100 buildings in the world are situtated. 

With a straightforward, colloquial style, the writer starts his essay by getting to the point like few other authors do. The times called for such delusion-shattering prose, and Carr delivered it with a finesse that garnered him the admiration of fellow journalists and readers who will long remember him.  

Friday, January 05, 2018

13th Anniversary of WORDS ON THE LINE

On January 5, 2005, I began WORDS ON THE LINE with limited expectations: perhaps post a writing tip here, a wise quote there, and a useful book review somewhere in between. I had been managing my full-time consulting business for nearly 9 years, so the blog was an attempt to keep me engaged as a writer, editor, trainer, and coach.

After 13 years and 770 posts, with at least 1 post in every week, WORDS ON THE LINE has provided key insights into writing at work, school, and home. Numerous rhetorical strategies, formatting devices, diction suggestions, and grammar tips appear here to make your writing more purposeful, powerful, organized, clear, concise, and correct. The many mini book reviews offer guidance for continued professional development. 


Regardless of your communication level, you will surely find useful content in this blog. Just scroll through the topics list down the right side of your screen to get what you're looking for. Also, feel free to reach me at Phil@PhilVassallo.com if you need writing  help. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Starting with What Matters, Part 3: Joan Didion

Two paragraphs into Joan Didion's essay, "Self-respect: Its Source, Its Power," which appeared in the August 1961 issue of Vogue and in her 1968 essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, comes this 85-word sentence: 
I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me, the pleasant certainty that those rather passive virtues which had won me approval as a child automatically guaranteed me not only Phi Beta Kappa keys but happiness, honor, and the love of a good man (preferably a cross between Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and one of the Murchisons in a proxy fight); lost a certain touching faith in the totem power of good manners, clean hair, and proven competence on the Stanford-Binet scale. 
With wit, edginess, and aplomb, Didion crafts a young woman's sudden, unwelcome arrival at the rite of passage from precocious youth to pragmatic adult by:

  • dropping and after the first comma to set a running rhythm
  • referencing a half-dozen symbols of popular culture (Phi Betta Kappan, Bogart, Casablanca, Murchisons, proxy fight, Stanford-Binet scale)
  • inserting an unexpected semicolon, departing from standard usage for surprise
  • breaking parallel structure twice for impact (happiness and honor joined with love of a good man; good manners and clean hair, with the longer phrase proven competence on the Stanford-Binet scale
  • transitioning from abstract nouns (happiness, love, honor) denoting romantic youth to sharper adjectives (good, clean, proven) to usher in the rash realities of womanhood.

In doing so, Didion charmingly creates an urge in her readers to know how such a setback sets the stage for defining self-respect. This is the kind of purposeful writing that makes critics admire her finesse with language.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Starting with What Matters, Part 2: James Baldwin

In "The Negro Child—His Self-Image" delivered as a talk to teachers on October 16, 1963, and published in The Saturday Review on December 21, 1963, James Baldwin, crafted this 88-word sentence toward the end of his 3,632-word essay:
Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours of every day and would then return to their homes and to the streets, children who have an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker, I would try to teach them—I would try to make them know—that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal. 
As background, Baldwin was talking to teachers at the invitation of their school. The premise of his unusual appeal was that no sooner do children develop a conscience that they find themselves at war with a backward society. He was challenging not only the very foundation of education but the moral and political imperative that we all must confront.

Let's start with the base clause of the sample: I would try to teach them that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal.

Baldwin suspends his subject, I, for 59 words. In doing so, he violates what most writing teachers would say is a hallmark of good writing: getting to the point by starting with the subject and verb. But in doing so, he proclaims how practically complex yet spiritually pure his point is. The words preceding the base clause sets the stage for the teacher's moral obligation: 
Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours of every day and would then return to their homes and to the streets, children who have an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker ...
By this point in his speech/essay, Baldwin has already established his credibility as a sage of the cultural mores of his time. Starting the sentence with "Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school" comes at a propitious moment. The additional clause "and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours of every day" is far from redundant; he is punctuating the educational dilemma in which teachers find themselves. And by concluding the long left branch preceding the base clause with "children who an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker," Baldwin emphasizes the heart of the problem and pivots to his appeal.

James Baldwin wrote many powerful, dramatic sentences like this one in his essays. You can find them is his Collected Essays and The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Starting with What Matters, Part 1: Oliver Sacks

This and the next several WORDS ON THE LINE posts cover a key tip on writing to the point, namely, starting with what matters most to your reader. Throughout the series, I refer to actual sentences from respected writers who skillfully illustrate ways that we can emphasize the most important point. In each case, I take a sentence out of the context of the sentences preceding and following it, so I encourage you to read the entire work, not only to understand why the authors chose the write their sentence as published but to reap the pleasure of capturing their creatively rendered content and style.

The sentence below comes from the essay "Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers" by Oliver Sacks in his posthumously published essay collection, The River of Consciousness:

Natural beauty, for Darwin, was not just aesthetic, it always reflected function and adaptation at work.
So much is happening in this 16-word sentence. Let's start with the obvious comma splice, a sentence that many English teachers would not tolerate. Sacks could have written a "correct" sentence by placing a period or a comma after aesthetic, but he wanted to move us along quickly, trusting that we would know he wanted only a slight pause and not a full stop. Great writers like Sacks take such linguistic liberties to nuance their prose.

A second point: Sacks separates the subject (beauty) and verb (was not) with a short, mid-branch, for Darwin. He could have written, For Darwin, natural beauty was not ..., but great writers know how and when to mix up their syntax for variety to keep the reader engaged.

Next, notice Sacks's subtle downplaying aesthetic, used as an adjective, in contrast with the nouns function and adaptation. In making aesthetic a mere descriptor of natural beauty as opposed to a more prominent concept, he brings to the fore the two parallel nouns that follow with even more force than he would have by simply writing was not just.

But what about getting to the point? The answer is simple: Sacks chooses to get to the point indirectly, creating greater surprise for the reader. As you might surmise from the title of the article, Sacks took on the dual challenge of describing Darwin's contribution to a radically new worldview of botany while explaining that flowers adapt to their environment in ways as profound as humans do. Such intellectual discoveries for the reader demand from the writer an uncommon style.

A weak substitute for Sacks's beautiful sentence runs 14 words, more concise than the 16-word original, yet nowhere near as imaginative or captivating, not even close to asserting the point that he wants to make.
Darwin saw natural beauty as aesthetic, but also as function and adaptation at work. 
You might think there's no way that Sacks put so much thought into each sentence and its limitless alternatives. If he had, he'd never finish writing one essay, let alone the many volumes he composed in his remarkable life. But ask jazz legend Sonny Rollins if he thinks about every stunning saxophone solo he plays, or three-point wonder Steph Curry if he deliberates before making a perfect shot from 24 feet out. Their likely answer would be that they're programmed, after thousands of hours of practice, to just do it. The same is true for Sacks.