How much should a writer think about writing style? All writers grapple with the concept every time we put pen to paper. Even the least self-conscious writer stares at the page or screen and wonders, How do I want to say this? We are always aware, on some level, that the choices we make in stringing words together reflect our identities.
I recently read a good short story, "Dry Whiskey" by David B. Silva (The Best American Mystery Stories 1999, ed. Ed McBain). The story builds unassumingly to a subtly powerful ending. However, the author struggles with the use of past perfect tense, enough so that it interferes with a smooth reading experience.
Past perfect tense is formed by combining the auxiliary verb had with a verb's past participle (had written, for example).
Years ago, while reading C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, I came across the paragraph in chapter 17 that begins, “It was mid-morning when the man dropped him at a corner beside a little country hotel.” This is a perfect paragraph, I realized, and it was the first time I’d ever experienced the power and artistry of what William Strunk Jr. calls “a convenient unit” that “serves all forms of literary work” (The Elements of Style, rule 13).
Since then, I’ve been on the lookout for perfect paragraphs. They are usually hiding around the corner, part of a series of ordinary paragraphs in a novel or essay, catching me by surprise with their concision, imagery, internal rhythm, completeness, and connection to the paragraphs before and after them.
I blissfully enjoyed The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. However, one of the first style quirks that jumped out at me was Rothfuss’s reliance on the constructions it was and there was (and it is, there were, etc.), as in “It was night again.” Out of the prologue and first twenty-one chapters, seven begin with It was. Rothfuss is a talented writer; he’s capable of chapter beginnings like this: “Chronicler walked. Yesterday he had limped, but today there was no part of his feet that didn’t hurt, so limping did no good.” The It was beginnings stick out like seven sore thumbs.
If you read anything aloud to Quintilius, he'd say "pray change that, and that". You would say you couldn't do better, though you'd tried two or three times, to no purpose. Then he'd tell you to scratch it out and put the badly turned lines back on the anvil. If you preferred defending your error to amending it, he wasted no more words or trouble on preventing you from loving yourself and your handiwork without competition. A wise and good man will censure flabby lines, reprehend harsh ones, put a black line with a stroke of the pen beside unpolished ones, prune pretentious ornaments, force you to shed light on obscurities, convict you of ambiguity, mark down what must be changed. . . . He won't say, "Why should I offend a friend in trifles?" These trifles lead to serious troubles, if once you are ridiculed and get a bad reception.
— Horace, Ars Poetica (trans. D. A. Russell)
To Ann Godoff, my brilliant editor, who taught me how to turn a series of story ideas into a coherent and useful narrative for readers, as she patiently (and, thankfully, sometimes not so patiently) shepherded this project along. Her advice, though blunt ("I have done away with Part 1"—twenty-five thousand words) was spot-on.
— Elisabeth Rosenthal, An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back (New York: Penguin Press, 2017), acknowledgments
In The Elements of Style, rule 12, William Strunk Jr. writes, “Choose a suitable design and hold to it ... Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur.” Strunk goes on to say that “design” can refer to something as loosely structured as a personal letter or rigidly organized as a sonnet. The point is to know what we are trying to communicate and choose the appropriate organizing principle so we can write it effectively.
Of course, this is easier said than done, especially when it comes to fiction.
Know what a verb is? Let’s review anyway. A verb is a word that expresses action (example: expresses) or a state of being (example: is).
Of course, it's not always that simple. For example, which is the verb in the following sentence? Talking makes me tired. It would be easy to mistake the noun form of talk (talking) for a verb.
A friend who minored in linguistics and is an English professor taught me this clever trick for identifying verbs in a sentence. All you have to do is change the day on which the sentence happens, which forces the verb tense to change.
Yesterday, talking made me tired. Today, talking makes me tired. Tomorrow, talking will make me tired.
By changing whether the sentence happens in the past, present, or future, you make it impossible for the verb to hide. The word that changes form is the verb.
When I was in grade school, I learned Latin from a textbook that began by teaching verbs. Because Latin verbs contain information about the person who is doing or being, they can stand on their own as tiny sentences, thus making them ideal for beginner Latin exercises. For example, the first-person singular form of the Latin verb for love (amo) literally means I love; the English verb love means only love.
Ever since finding out that verbs can stand alone as powerful, one-word sentences, I have seen them as special. While we may learn nouns more easily than verbs when we are infants, I believe verbs are a more fundamental part of speech.
Verbs reflect a primary reality about humanity and the universe: everything is in motion. All things are acting or reacting, moving, pushing, jostling, flattening, growing, changing, shrinking, disappearing, being born. Stories are about this primary reality. Stories are about things that happen.
Good writing and good storytelling mean using verbs to express motion, not to fill in a static picture.
One way to choose expressive verbs is to prefer action verbs over state of being verbs. Compare these two sentences:
By searching around for some action verbs to write with, I came up with a more interesting sentence. As an editor, I’ve noticed that when writers are relying on state of being verbs, they usually haven’t clearly visualized their story.
That doesn’t mean we can’t ever use state of being verbs. I’ve used plenty of them throughout this blog entry. They balance the intensity of action verbs. Some ideas can only be communicated with state of being verbs.
But aim to use action verbs. Your style will automatically improve.
Last fall I attended a children’s book festival and came away with Frances Hodgson Burnett: Beyond the Secret Garden by Angelica Shirley Carpenter (who autographed my book) and Jean Shirley (Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 1990). Children’s biographies about children’s authors are doubly intriguing, and it had been years since I had read a children’s biography.
I remember reading a children’s biography of Louisa May Alcott as a child. I was sorely disappointed by the black-and-white photographs, in which Louisa’s and her family’s faces were massive and severe, and by the facts of Louisa’s life, which was nothing so romantic (I thought at the time) as Jo March’s.
As I began reading Frances Hodgson Burnett, I was prepared for the unglamorous truth about her life and the pictures of her as a sturdy lady corseted up in bizarre Victorian ensembles. What I didn’t expect was the sheer joy of reading a biography written for middle-grade children.