THE SECRET SAUCE
It's not very nice at all, and it's not remotely fair. But it's true. Two persons have roughy the same idea. One puts it down in crisp, vivid prose. The other, with the same thought in mind, sinks it in a stew of mushy, colorless language and stumble-bum syntax. Oh, sure, the idea may still be there, vaguely, but the reader's desire to read any further is not. It's gone. Poof!
It's a cruel truth, but many bright yet unfortunate people know it all too well. They get dark and sulky when what they have written gets ignored or gets a low valuations in one of life’s little kangaroo courts; like, for instance, in an English class or on a job application or a college essay or a love letter.
Poets and pundits know all about this inequitable truth, and they can’t believe their good fortunes in being gifted with a knack for expression: “Man, this is like getting paid for thinking out loud!" they say -- but usually not out loud.
So, yes, writing well can be a bit of a crap shoot. For reasons not understood by science, when your own personal writing bones were tossed, they might have tumbled to a Lucky Seven or -- oh, dear! -- Snake Eyes. Which is to say, on one level, you either have it or you don’t. The dice, as it were, are cast. But only a chump would give up there. As any good back-alley craps shooter knows, there are all kinds things you can do to beat the system. And win.
You want to write well. You want to express yourself more forcefully on paper. You want people to sit up and take notice. Or maybe you just want better grades. Let’s see if I can help.
I am going to suggest an approach to writing that asks you to pay attention to one thing, and only one thing. Do that, and I guarantee that you will be writing better.
First a little background.
Experts habitually breakdown writing into its surface components. You know: words, phrases, clauses, sentences, and paragraphs, Or noun, verb, adjective, gerunds, etc. Or things like topic sentences and thesis statements. Then there are the broader approaches like descriptive, narrative, compare-and-contrast, and analytical essays.
And why not? Each of these categories is valid and, in its own rather dreary way, useful. For centuries students have met them in the classroom as part of a sort of a forced march imposed by instructors who have faith that they are building skills from these taxonomic containers.
For you, as a student, writing then feels a little like trying to run with tin cans tied to your ankles. All your bright fresh ideas, heart-felt grudges, and vivid images seem to fad and unsparkle as they spill out from your brain into the little grey tubs you have been given to fill: So here's my intro; here's my thesis; here are my claims; here's my topic sentence, my transition, my evidence, my motive, my warrant. My god, where's my conclusion? Has anyone seen my conclusion?
Maybe you have wondered if the dulling and blurring might have something to do with all the containers. How could it not?
So years ago, very progressive writing theorists offered an extreme, contrapuntal solution to this problem. Known variously as free expression, automatic writing, or stream-of-consciousness composition, this tack has not worked out well. The idea was simply to writing from the hip. Ignore all rules and formalities and scribble page after page of free-form verbiage until you are exhausted. As you might guess, this approach has resulted in a lot of, well, free-form verbiage. In fact, all the F-FV the planet will ever need.
I want to suggest a middle way that offers a reconciliation between the notion that good writing boils down to the manipulation of superficial language components and the fevered poet approach that asks you spill your guts on the page as if writing were a relaxed bodily function.
You need only focus on one thing -- one block. The key block. It’s this: the sentence. In this case, the English sentence, the English sentence in all its vital, elusive beauty. Do this, and I promise you that if you get this one block right, everything else will fall into place. Rhetorical containers will magically fill, and your prose will have a easy, natural flow -- I guess like a bodily function.
Of course, the sentence is not the only block in the structure of prose, but it's the main block. It is so much the main block, that all the others can only happen because of it. They are but sugar cubes in comparison to a cinder block known as the well-formed English sentence.
Of the many parts and pieces of language, the sentence is not only the most powerful, but also the most mysterious. And I mean truly mysterious, as in beyond the reach of human science and perhaps human understanding. While all the other elements are the inventions of man, the sentence is piece of nature. For some reason (as yet undiscovered) humans have an uncanny ability to string words together that form sentences. How does this work? No one knows. Why does it happen? Also, no answer. What exactly is there about the sentence that causes it to exist as a real thing? Well, go ask Alice.
Something is or is not a sentence. This not true of the paragraph -- or even of words. The boundaries and properties of words and paragraphs are loose and debatable. But a string of words either is or is not a sentence. Only the sentence, among all the other elements of language, comes bearing a sort of internal coding that is projected into the world straight from somewhere in or beyond the human brain -- an algorithmic skeleton that must be obeyed.
Sentences are, as neuro-babblists like to say, wired in. Paragraphs were invented by medieval scribes. Punctuation, as we know it, was also a recent arrival. Thesis statements are products of the German universities, And compare-and-contrast essays are 20th Century English teacher concoctions. Even words themselves are fuzzy around the edges. If I want "gumpf" to be a word, all I have to do is name my dog Gumph. But I am powerless to change or undo the imperatives of sentence making.
The sentence, it seems, arrived here on the same moonbeam that we did. I share its deeply encrypted creative engines with every other member of my species. So it stands to reason that when I want to sharpen and brighten my efforts to communicate with fellow humans, the sentence becomes my laboratory. This where to start.