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. 

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Writing Is a Process

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), one of the guardians of the English language, has argued for years that writing is a process as well as a product. The product is what we write, the white paper, proposal, report, procedure, email, speech, essay, story, play, or poem that informs, persuades, guides, or entertains our readers. The process is how we write, the steps we take to move words, sentences, and paragraphs from our brains to the screen or paper. 

In its position statement Professional Knowledge for the Teaching of Writing, the NCTE claims that everyone has the capacity to write and to become better writers. An effective use of the writing process enables students to achieve multiple benefits:
  • Break writer's block.
  • Eliminate procrastination.
  • Reduce writing-related stress.
  • Generate creative ideas.
  • Organize content logically.
  • Draft messages quickly.
  • Revise, edit, and proofread efficiently. 
  • Improve their productivity.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Upcoming Webinars

Clients ask me nearly every day, "When is your next webinar?" So I've decided to list just a few of my public upcoming webinars with their descriptive registration links:
I am also presenting many nonpublic webinars for private clients. If your business is interested, please reach me at Phil@PhilVassallo.com.