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 to 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.