Monday, December 15, 2014

Open secrets to writing prose that leaps out from the page

If you are simply writing a memo to your manager, a job application letter to a prospective employer, or an accomplishment report to a socio-civic or professional organization, your best bet will always be plain and simple English—simple words, concise and uncomplicated phrasing, short and straightforward sentences, expositions with not a trace of embellishment. But if you are a professional writer doing nonfiction feature stories or opinion pieces; a literary writer doing short fiction, novels, or stage plays; or a public speaker who ply the lecture circuit for a living or do a lot of social advocacy or political speeches, it definitely won’t do to depend on plain and simple English alone. You need to discover, learn, and practice the open secrets of writing English that leaps out from the page, English that engages and keeps your readers or listeners enthralled until you’re done with what you have to tell them. In short, you need to acquire ample skills in rhetorical writing and speaking in English.

In “Playing Boldly with Sentences,” an essay that I wrote for my English-usage column of The Manila Times in the early 2000s, I related my thrill of discovery in coming across Lucille Vaughan Payne’s The Lively Art of Writing, a reference book that methodically but delightfully describes the nuts-and-bolts of writing sentences and expositions with the power to hold readers and listeners by their lapels. I am sure that Forum members and guests can greatly benefit from that book’s writing prescriptions, so I have posted that essay about them here. (December 16, 2014)

Playing Boldly with Sentences

One of the most lucid and delightful books I’ve read about writing is Lucille Vaughan Payne’s The Lively Art of Writing. The slim volume, which I discovered many years ago when I was still very self-consciously grappling with writing technique, taught me one unforgettable truth about doing a sentence: it’s all a matter of developing a basic idea. No matter how complex our thoughts are, we can actually boil down each of them to a few words that capture its essential meaning. The emotional turmoil that seizes a love struck person, for instance, can normally be whittled down to this deadpan statement: “I’m in love and I don’t know what to do.” The righteous anger that a manager feels when a subordinate violates a time-honored corporate rule usually culminates in two words: “You’re fired!” And the feeling of certainty of a religious convert usually gets affirmed in these words: “I believe.” They are all that simple.

It is only when we ask ourselves—or when other people ask us—to support and justify those simple ideas that we have to elaborate on them with more words. Who are involved? Why? Where? When? How? And so what? To answer these questions, we begin to build our sentences. We make them long and complex to the extent that will make our thoughts clear, not only to ourselves but also to anyone who would care to read or listen to us.
Building those sentences can actually become much easier once we understand clearly that any sentence falls under either of three patterns: loose sentenceperiodic sentence, or combination sentence. As delightfully discussed by Ms. Vaughan Payne in her book, every sentence begins with a basic idea or statement: “The doves flew.” “Ana lost her temper.” “The manager burst into laughter.” It is how we build structures upon these basic ideas that determines how good a writer or speaker we are.

We come up with a loose sentence every time we add a string of details to the tail end of a basic statement: “The doves flew, flapping their wings in the still air, breaking the morning stillness with their shrill cries, warning their kindred of the approach of the deadly hawks.” On the other hand, we produce a periodic sentence when we place additional details before or inside the basic statement: “The imperturbable Ana, ever the patient one, the girl who never got angry even with the worst provocation, lost her temper.” In a combination sentence, of course, we add details before, inside, and after the basic statement, freely combining the elements of both the loose and periodic sentence: “The morose and demanding manager, with an ax to grind against anything and everything, was so pleased with the quarterly sales that he burst into laughter, the first time in so many years in his beleaguered company.”

You must have already noticed that periodic sentence structures usually expand the subject or verb, while loose structures expand the verb or object. The usual methods of expanding the subject in a periodic sentence are, of course, description and the use of appositives, adjectives, prepositional phrase, and participles. In her book, Ms. Vaughan Payne suggests that the easiest way to make details flow in a periodic sentence is to think of the subject as being followed by a pause.

It is, she says, the same kind of pause that occurs in conversations every day, as in these sentences: “My friend [pause] a Political Science graduate [pause] wants to run for town mayor.” “That volcano [pause] sheer and high as it is [pause] is not really that hard to climb.” “The school [pause] in keeping with tradition [pause] required graduates to wear togas and gowns.” “Annabelle [pause] grown tired of her boyfriend [pause] broke off with him last night.”

In the case of verbs, whether in periodic or loose sentences, we can expand them by showing how their action progresses. We can use adverbs and adverbial phrases to do the expanding: “The interviewer listened, attentively at first, but distractedly and impatiently towards the end.” “The soldiers paused at the road junction, wearily scanning the horizon for jet bombers, fearfully spying the buildings for snipers.”

As in the case of subjects, we can likewise expand objects to form loose sentence structures by using appositives, adjectives, prepositional phrase, and participles: “Today I am seeing Miss Jennifer Cruz, the human resources manager.” “The newlyweds took the bus, a rickety affair that perilously transported the mountainfolk and their produce to the nearest lowland town.”

There’s actually no limit to how much we can expand subjects, verbs, and objects in our sentences—except, of course, good sense and a keen awareness of how much our readers and audiences can take. In the end, the good writer is one who exercises restraint: not saying too little as to be irritatingly cryptic, nor saying too much as to be a big, tiresome bore.

This essay is Chapter 80 of Give Your English the Winning Edge by Jose A. Carillo © 2009 by Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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