Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Sound of Language

Read everything you write out loud for rhythm and sound: ‘Good writers of prose must be part poet, always listening to what they write.’ --William Zinsser

Music is sound speaking to sound. The trumpet sends a pattern into the air where it reverberates and resonates with its listeners. Written language isn’t different. Words send patterns into the infinite where they reverberate and resonate with listeners.

Writers need to recognize the sounds that words make in readers’ mind. They need to cultivate an ear for the music of language, for its pace, and they need to revise to enhance the rhythm and music of language.

Photo courtesy of Al Griffin Photography
The order of words and word choices make passages more and less musical. For example, President John F. Kennedy’s famous admonition is musical because of his use of effective repetition and rhetorical patterns known as chiasmus, antithesis, and parallelism.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

In plainer, less artful language, Kennedy’s message could be rendered as:

Let’s not ask America to meet our needs; let’s ask how we can meet our own and the nation’s.

Other nations shouldn’t expect us to save and protect them; they should join America in advancing freedom.

Photo courtesy of Al Griffin Photography
Clearly, the order of words and word choices matter. Kennedy’s are memorable; they jarred the imaginations of his and future generations. The plainer version is less memorable.

Reading Challenge:

Read the posts linked in this article. They explain and illustrate rhetorical devices and the rhythm of language in detail.

Writing Challenge:

Use chiasmus, antithesis, or parallel structure in one of your own pieces of writing.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Writers Must Be Readers!

Writing is learned by imitation. If anyone asked me how I learned to write, I’d say I learned by reading the men and women who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and trying to figure out how they did it. --William Zinsser

Stephen King has offered the same advice provided above by Zinsser. I’ve echoed both men several times in the blog. It is advice that bears repeating.

Want to write a memoir? Then read memoirs, including some of those listed below:

  • About Alice by Calvin Trillin
  • All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
  • Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
  • The Autobiography of Mark Twain by Mark Twain
  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
  • Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
  • The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson
  • A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Bael
  • Marley and Me by John Grogan
  • Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
  • Never Have Your Dog Stuffed and Other Things I’ve Learned By Alan Alda
  • Night by Elie Wiesel
  • On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
  • Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
  • Walden by Henry David Thoreau
  • Wild by Cheryl Strayed
  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Each of the titles above will give you fresh ideas about organization. Chronology is not the only or even the best way to tell your story.

Each of the titles above will also give you an array of diction, syntax, and image choices. Select a passage and imitate it word for word with your own message.

Want to write a novel? Then read novels, including some of those listed below:

  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King
  • Life after Life by Kate Atkinson
  • No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
  • The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
  • The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Watership Down by Richard Adams
  • We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

Each of the titles above represents a very different structure and style. Read to absorb all the possibilities for both.

Reading Challenge:

Read one from the list of memoirs and one from the list of novels.

Writing Challenge:

Begin the book you’ve always dreamed about writing.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Writing Clearly

Avoid jargon and big words: ‘Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English.’ --William Zinsser

Consider the sample sentence below:

DNR hosted a public forum to discuss TCE and its hazards to human health according to the EPA and IARC.

Perfectly clear, right?


Folks familiar with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) may also be familiar with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but the general population will struggle to read that sentence and understand. Even insiders may not recognize the acronyms for the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) or trichloroethylene (TCE).

Writers learn to eschew acronyms without first writing out the entire phrase from which an acronym comes. No matter how many extra characters you must use, an acronym is useless and off-putting unless readers know it as well as they know these:
  • ASAP = as soon as possible
  • FUBAR = F’d Up Beyond All Recognition
  • IDK = I don’t know.
  • LOL = Laugh Out Loud
  • P.S. = Post Script (More commonly now known as “afterthought)
  • RSVP = Répondez S’il Vous Plaît (Translation: Reply Please)
  • Snafu = Situation Normal--All F’d Up
Language unique to a field of study or profession is also confusing to the general public. That’s the genius of someone like Stephen W. Hawking. He made quantum physics accessible in books such as The Cambridge Lectures: Life Works. From that text, I have excerpted a fine example of academic explanations made known to the general public:

In the 1920s, when astronomers began to look at the spectra of stars in other galaxies, they found something most peculiar: There were the same characteristic sets of missing colors as for stars in our own galaxy, but they were all shifted by the same relative amount toward the red end of the spectrum. The only reasonable explanation of this was that the galaxies were moving away from us, and the frequency of the light waves from them was being reduced, or red-shifted, by the Doppler effect. Listen to a car passing on the road. As the car is approaching, its engine sounds at a higher pitch, corresponding to a higher frequency of sound waves; and when it passes and goes away, it sounds at a lower pitch. The behavior of light or radial waves is similar. Indeed, the police made use of the Doppler effect to measure the speed of cars by measuring the frequency of pulses of radio waves reflected off them (Hawking 22).

Galaxies, light spectrums, and the Doppler effect are made clear to readers with an analogy, but equally important, by the absence of big words or jargon. Hawking understands his subject so well that he’s able to render it accessible to all in comprehensible language. He is, as anyone might have guessed, a clear thinker.

As Zinsser advises, be not a muddy thinker, then you will avoid being a muddy writer. Know your subjects well, and know the best words. Read and study all life long.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Cambridge Lectures: Life Works by Stephen W. Hawking.

Writing Challenge:

Make complex thought comprehensible.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Word Choices Matter

You’ll never make your mark as a writer unless you develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning that is almost obsessive. The English language is rich in strong and supple words. Take the time to root around and find the ones you want. --William Zinsser

Imagine a stately grand tree. What does your mind conjure after those directions?

Photo courtesy of Al Griffin Photography
Is your tree like mine? A Giant Sequoia towering hundreds of feet into the air? Or is yours something closer to this earth, a tall, full evergreen dusted with snow?

The problem is a word like “tree,” while concrete, is not specific. It fails to communicate precisely what I had in mind.

So writers must become students. They are life-long learners, gathering information and vocabulary that will deliver the hues and harmonies, subtleties, shades, shocks, and sorrows, joys and jubilations along the continuum of the human experience.

Reading Challenge:

Read On Writing Well, William Zinsser’s advice about writing well.

Writing Challenge:

Select five more precise words for the following list of words. For example, for the verb walk, you would list stroll, amble, strut, meander, and stagger.

Here is your list: fat, laugh, tree, flower, reptile, and dessert.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach. Read more of Connye's words on Our Eyes Upon Missouri.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Man Against Everything in Concussion

Last week, using Kung Fu Panda 3, My Writing and Editing Coach reviewed an archetypal conflict: the son in conflict with father figures. This week, Coach reviews a man in conflict with himself and others, conflicts portrayed beautifully by Will Smith in Concussion.

Will Smith stars in the role of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the pathologist who uncovered truths about the life-long health effects of American football as the game is now played. Hard hits and tackles cause players to develop CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). Omalu uncovered this fact and recognized that CTE is an outcome of not only boxing but football also. His efforts to reveal this fact put him in conflict with football fans and the corporation known as the NFL.

The heart of the film is Dr. Omalu’s conflict with those who close ranks against anything and anyone who threatens the status quo, especially if that threat could affect profits and dividends. Omalu’s discovery is that threat. The rough style of football delivers blows to the brain, causing it to move inside the skull and sustain damage. Over time, those blows may cause delusions and dementia leading to increased health insurance costs, especially if players could make life-time claims against the NFL.

Photo provided by Al Griffin Photography
The NFL, according to the film and book it was based on, was aware. It had already conducted cost-benefit analyses and concluded a likely result was increased costs to franchises and owners so it suppressed evidence and fought to suppress Omalu.

As a corporation, the NFL could wield considerable influence to deny Omalu’s claims and marginalize the man himself. He was one man against many. He was also one man against the NFL’s inside physician whom Omalu commanded, to no avail: “Tell the truth.”

Being marginalized put Omalu in conflict with himself as well as with others. He wondered about the personal and familial costs of his position, but Omalu is not a man apart by virtue of others’ actions alone. He is a man apart by design. He has a vision and a moral code that demands he serve those who have suffered. He demands the truth of himself. He strives for excellence in himself, and he strives to be honorable at all times. He even turns down an offer for a powerful government position, a job that could quiet his voice against the NFL’s injustices. Omalu turns down the offer. It appears he is a man who cannot be bought. The better side of him triumphs when he confronts himself.

Concussion is an excellent study in literary conflicts, especially man against himself, man against man, and man against society (or a group). A fourth type of conflict is man against Nature, another type that Omalu’s story reveals. Omalu uses science and knowledge to discern truths in nature. His autopsies seek the truth about nature’s work upon the human body, and Omalu usually finds the truth for that death.

With regard to the fifth type of conflict, man against a supernatural power, Omalu’s story again serves. He contemplates why the path he’s chosen has been fraught with challenge, but concludes that he stands on God’s path. Through his moments of doubt, he weighs God’s hand upon his shoulder and accepts it.

Reading Challenge:

Read the book, Concussion, by Jeanne Marie Laskas or the film Concussion, starring Will Smith.

Writing Challenge:

Tell a story illustrating one of the five types of conflict.