How to Write a Sentence: a book review

Monday, February 23, 2015 0 No tags

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My brother and sister-in-law gave me this book for Christmas called, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, by Stanley Fish. Have you heard of it? For a book on writing–oh but it’s much more than that–I sure read it like a thriller page turner.

How is this different from other books about writing? For starters, this book is not about writing in general, but only about writing sentences. Just as the title suggests. Consider the provocative title of the second chapter: Why You Won’t Find the Answer in Strunk and White.

I know. It’s blasphemous.

I, for one, always have my copy of The Elements of Style nearby, how is he is so bold to make such a claim?! Fish says this:

“In short, Strunk and White’s advice assumes a level of knowledge and understanding only some of their readers will have attained; the vocabulary they confidently offer is itself in need of an analysis and explanation they do not provide.”

According to Fish, the style guide’s answer to the question, “what is a sentence?” does not go deep enough. Okay, fine. So, instead of talking about the technical elements of a sentence, Fish spends the rest of the book delving into his love of good sentences, and deconstructing them in a new way. And it didn’t take me long to get sucked into the game.

He spends entire chapters on the types of sentences we can create, using them as structures on which to create new sentences with our own words. His dissection style is nothing like a grammar book. His way is much more inspiring, and even practical. While Fish isn’t changing any rules, he is simply going past them, and proving along the way that that is where all the fun is. Whether you love or hate grammar, if you love the English language, you will like this book.

The point is, if you love writing, you must first love sentences.

And if you can’t write a well-formed sentence, or even appreciate one, then you can’t write well. And there is more to writing a sentence then subject and verb placement. More to writing a good sentence, anyway.

Fish is like a chef whose peers want to teach you to cook by spending one day on the onion, another on the potato, and another on knife cutting techniques. All that is well and good, but Fish takes you aside, hands you a chip piled with guacamole and says, “let’s talk about what exactly makes this combination so surprising and delightful. And then we will see what other surprising chip dips we can make using a vegetable, acidic element, root vegetable, and an alkaline fruit”.

In short, where Strunk and White provide the rules, Fish offers form. And he shows through many examples that those forms are fool-proof, if you can only dissect the forms properly. But once you have done the dissecting, the possibilities are endless. Literally!

Creating sentences is way more fun than you ever believed!

Since reading the book, I have been on the lookout for sentences that I love. It’s hard. There are plenty of quotes and inspiring thoughts to love, but finding great sentence structures when the meaning of the words is stripped away is not an easy task.

His chapters on first and last sentences will have you reaching for every book on your book shelf, eating up the first and last sentences of everything you can get your hands on. What a whole new world he has opened up!

Overall, this book is a delight to read and I would even go so far as to call it a must-read for writers and readers who want to be better writers and readers, whether or not you agree with him 100%.

What do you think? Are you intrigued? Will you read it? What are some of your favorite books for writers and readers alike? Comment below! And click on the book below for info, and more reviews.

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Five Questions I Ask Myself Before I Hit Publish

Wednesday, February 18, 2015 0 No tags

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Call it paranoia, caution, overly analytical, or wise: but I don’t click the “publish” button on my blog post drafts lightly.

When I first started blogging, and I would write a post that made me ask “what do I not like about this?”, I wouldn’t always know how to proceed. I knew it needed a little tweaking, but I couldn’t always put my finger on what needed to change. Over time, however, I learned the things about my own writing style that annoyed me, and I was able to organically develop a few questions to ask myself when I was trying to figure out what exactly it was that was bugging me.

So here they are: the five questions I ask myself before I hit “publish”.

1) If this sentence feels necessary, but questionable, does it necessarily need to be in the post? Or is it better suited as social media commentary?

This one has come in really handy. Sometimes I feel the need to apologize for a blogging break, or add something else to my title, but I feel it sounds too self-conscious in the actual blog post. Most of the time, when I ask myself this question, the answer is that it would make a great facebook caption to the post instead! I feel I can be a little more insecure on facebook or twitter, where I am trying to connect on a different level, than in my blog posts. :) What a relief!

2) Has my attempt at clarity gone too far?

This one sneaks up on me. It often happens when I spend too much time writing a post: I start over-explaining my point until I just start to sound like I am apologizing for having an opinion. This one can be hard to catch when you have been re-reading your work for the past half hour, but then that magical moment comes when you try deleting a sentence. And then an entire paragraph. And if it all still works? It’s the best feeling. Superfluous words are truly the stuff of nightmares.

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3) Is this self-indulgent?

This question is usually followed by other questions like, “what is my motive for writing this” and “am I just preaching”? Occasionally, I will feel passionately about a topic and sit down to slam out a blog post in a matter of minutes. Every once in a while I am able to salvage them, but they usually stay in my drafts and become what I like to think of as “a nice little diary entry”. And that is where they stay. You are welcome.

Self-indulgence in writing can take many forms, however. It can appear in a post that doesn’t invite conversation, or in a post that has more ideas than concrete thoughts. I am very, very paranoid about self-indulgent writing.

4) Is there anything I can get rid of?

This was a hard lesson to learn, and one I am still learning. But I have been rewarded for trying because erasing words is so much fun! This is similar to question #2, but broader in that I am just looking for repetitive ideas or sentences that simply don’t add anything to my idea.

With #2, the guilty sentences are usually all clustered together. With this question, the culprits are more subtle and spread out with more of a “divide and conquer” attitude that really irritates me. I get a certain amount of personal satisfaction when I can happily erase a sentence I have grown attached to for the greater good of the post. It makes me feel like a martyr. Which isn’t a problem. Don’t worry about me.

5) Have I missed any spelling errors or grammatical mistakes?

I hope this one is obvious. I don’t always catch mistakes, but I do try to avoid them whenever possible. Of course I am not a perfect grammarian, and there are times when I actually choose to forego a rule of syntax for the sake of sounding conversational (GASP!). But this is blogging. Not a dissertation.

And there you have it. Those are my favorite handy dandy troubleshooting questions.

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Everyone’s writing style is different, and we all have our own pet peeves, so I would love to know: what questions do you ask yourself before you hit publish? Or, if you are a reader and not a writer, I would love to know what writing styles rub you the wrong way. Do tell!

Creating a Creative Routine

Thursday, November 6, 2014 0 No tags

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I can’t technically say that I am working from home, because I think that implies I am earning a salary. But, I am currently working from home (unpaid) as I work on a few projects that will hopefully allow me to work from home (paid) in the future! That makes perfect sense, right?

For the past couple of months, I have been trying to figure out a good work-from-home routine. And it has been challenging. But, after a lot of reading and listening and experimentation, there are a few things I have found to work for me so far. I am still doing a lot of tweaking. But it’s progress.

1) Listening to podcasts

I work better when I have other people around me to bounce ideas off with. While I enjoy solitude for certain types of work (editing, for example), other times I would prefer noise and voices around me. To counteract the silence of my home during the day, I started listening to podcasts. Specifically, podcasts about creativity, writing, and blogging. It is such a jump start for me and always gets ideas flowing in my brain. Two of my favorites right now are How They Blog and The Accidental Creative.

Listening to interviews with all kinds of people on all kinds of topics is helpful for me. Even if someone just says one thing that you can grab onto and glean inspiration from. It is helpful for me to feel like I am surrounded by chatty, creative people.

I also try to use the listening time to work on sketches for blog posts. Podcast time feels so productive! When my sisters and I were younger, we would sprawl out on the floor and draw for hours while listening to cassette tapes. It was so therapeutic, I wanted to incorporate it into my adult life. I find listening to pod casts the perfect time to sketch mindlessly. In fact, I drew the illustration above while listening to a podcast. There is something about listening and drawing that removes the pressure of perfection. I think listening helps remove the distractions of the left side of the brain (logic and reason) and allows creativity to flow freely.

2) Utilizing the time of day to my advantage

I am usually tempted to do easy work when I first open my laptop in the morning: final editing, responding to emails, or responding to blog comments. But some of the best advice I have read from people who work at home is to know when you are most creative, and use that knowledge to your advantage.

For me, I am a morning person, and do my best creative work first thing in the morning. I do my best editing in the afternoon/early evening. I am toast late at night. I know that about myself, so I fight the urge to reply to emails first thing in the morning (even though that feels so productive!), and save it for when I need a little bit of a mental break. I have learned that if I save my hardest creative work (writing, for example) for later in the day, I lose my momentum pretty early on.

3) Setting a timer

You have probably heard this tip: for the work that feels overwhelming, that you are dreading, set a timer for 15 minutes and see how much you can get done. Tell yourself that all you have to do is work for 15 minutes! That’s it!

Setting a timer is something I need to do more often. It is a perfect method for me. I tend to put off things that overwhelm me, because I just know they are going to take up so much of my precious time. That stupid 15 minute timer has proven to me that my internal thoughts are all lies. It’s pretty humbling, that stupid little timer. Do you know how much you can get done in 15 minutes? A lot. And do you know how much you can get done after the timer goes off, and you ride with the momentum? Even more.

If you have never tried it, I highly recommend it.

4) Making lists

In order to avoid getting lost in an internet rabbit hole of things that are most likely interesting but entirely irrelevant, I have to make lists to stay on task. Even if it is just a short, broad list of the main things I want to accomplish that day.

I keep a little moleskine notebook full of daily lists, so I can look back on my previous lists and remember that I do actually accomplish things. I also keep another notebook near by for writing down ideas that I don’t want to forget, but could potentially be distracting if I focused on them in that moment.

5) Taking breaks

I am really good at getting distracted, but not so good at deliberately taking breaks. I can easily work for four hours straight without realizing I haven’t eaten or moved my muscles. I try to take frequent breaks now, and have made it a habit to shut down all work when I feel burnt out. And if I am still going strong by the time Eric gets home, I make myself put it all away. I need those evening hours to reboot and get away from the screen.

So those are the five things I am learning right now. I am still getting the hang of everything, and there is room for improvement of course, but I think I am off to a good start.

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What about you? Do you work from home? Or at least, set aside time for creative work outside of your “real” job? How do you stay productive and inspired? What works for you? What podcasts do you love? Please share!

What Flannery Said

Friday, July 18, 2014 0 No tags

Didn’t think I could love Flannery O’Connor any more, and then I read her book Mystery and Manners. What a gem. Have you read it? I’m just going to leave you with a few quotes from the book, which is a collection of essays about writing fiction and art in general.

If you enjoy her fiction, she offers many helpful insights into her own writing (which can be challenging), and if you enjoy art (especially if you share her Christian beliefs), you will enjoy her profound thoughts intertwined with  her dry humor.

Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.

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“Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it.”

Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.

“There is no excuse for anyone to write fiction for public consumption unless he has been called to do so by the presence of a gift. It is the nature of fiction not to be good for much unless it is good in itself.” 

Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them. 

 

“Poorly written novels — no matter how pious and edifying the behavior of the characters — are not good in themselves and are therefore not really edifying.”  

The Christian novelist is distinguished from his pagan colleagues by recognizing sin as sin. According to his heritage, he sees it not as a sickness or an accident of the environment, but as a responsible choice of offense against God which involves his eternal future. Either one is serious about salvation or one is not. And it is well to realize that the maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy. 

 

Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe. One reason a great deal of our contemporary fictions is humorless is because so many of these writers are relativists and have to be continually justifying the actions of their characters on a sliding scale of values. 

00I hope you have a wonderful weekend!