Sunday, January 29, 2012

Beyond Strunk and White

We've been considering sentences and how to write them.

I mentioned in the first post in this series, the book by Stanley Fish called How to Write a Sentence.  He writes initially about how grammar books (e.g., Strunk and White) focus on form, but on aspects of form that are detached from the underlying form that must already be in place before one begins worrying about grammar and punctuation. Such books assume that the writer already has the skill to write a well-constructed sentence, to be able to express a complete thought with a subject and predicate, and to link thoughts together coherently in a sentence.  They consequently focus on the technical aspects of grammar and punctuation, especially on those rules that people find difficult to remember and apply. There's nothing wrong with this approach--it is indispensable information, which writers need to be successful. What Fish means is that grammar books skip over a very important aspect of writing, which is how to organize one's thoughts in a logical manner and to do so within the space of a single sentence. The latter is what Fish's book attempts to address.

Fish's point is important because without a basic understanding of how to express one's ideas in a logical manner and in a way that captures the reader's attention, the ability to correctly punctuate is not very important (except to pass a test perhaps). Another point he makes and that also occurred to me as I was reading is that the emphasis on grammar and punctuation partly underlies people's fear of writing. Novice writers can become completely frozen at the thought of making a technical error that will be embarrassing. Worse, a writer's ability to freely express themselves is often blocked by the desire to write a perfect sentence (without technical errors) at the first go. I've talked about writing and writer's block previously and ways to overcome it. Perfectionism can underlie some of these writing difficulties, and an emphasis on technical errors can exacerbate them.  Perfectionism (and fear of making a technical error) was definitely part of my problem when I first began to write.  However, looking back on it, I now think that it was also a lack of understanding of how to construct a sentence in a way that expressed my thoughts clearly and unambiguously.

Fish points out that with practice, a writer develops a grammatical "sixth sense", which enables her to sense that something is wrong with a sentence and then to identify it and correct it.  The latter can occur during revision of the writing so as to not interfere with the natural flow of ideas during the act of writing the first draft. Such an ability only comes with practice...lots of it. Once acquired, however, the writer is free to write without worrying over every little grammatical detail, which can be reviewed and corrected later during revision.  Of course, experienced writers are able to express their ideas freely while simultaneously making corrections to the grammar and punctuation without blocking the flow of writing. These technical aspects become so ingrained that they are applied to the writing with little thought or consideration. For the novice writer, however, it's best to get the ideas down on paper first and later revise to correct grammar and punctuation. I would argue that it's much more important to get your idea across than to write a perfectly punctuated sentence. There are plenty of examples in literature of fantastic sentences that take your breath away, but that are not punctuated properly, according to Strunk and White.

But back to the point about the underlying form of a sentence.  Fish describes an exercise that helps a writer understand sentence form and to practice writing complex sentences.  The exercise involves taking a simple, three-word sentence such as, "Mary looked out." and expanding it to form first a fifteen word sentence and then to a sentence of thirty or more words.  Here is an example, using this short sentence as a base:

In the middle of her presentation to a standing-room-only audience of top scientists from around the world, Mary, a young post-doctoral researcher, nervously looked out at her mentor sitting in the front row, who had pioneered the topic of her research and had won a Nobel Prize for it and who typically conveyed an intimidating image to anyone facing him, especially in a forum where the speaker could be subjected to public humiliation in front of colleagues, and saw that he was nodding appreciatively at her delivery and content, an action that boosted her confidence enormously and that she later would remember and cherish as she faced more challenging and unfriendly spectators.

Okay, this isn't a literary gem, but it illustrates how the exercise works. I could have written an infinite number of variations on this theme using "Mary looked out." as the basis.  I wrote this 112-word sentence spontaneously, with very little thought initially as to what it would describe.  The sentence seemed to take on a life of its own as I began to imagine Mary standing in front of an audience (a choice I made after contemplating what Mary might be looking at). I found this exercise to be quite enlightening and fun to conduct.  What you begin to recognize in conducting such exercises is how a single sentence can tell a complex and interesting story.  The sentence I wrote conveys a huge amount of information about Mary and her apparent relationship with her mentor, even projecting Mary's experience and feelings far into the future (see previous post about time-traveling sentences).

The point is not to develop a writing style that involves long, convoluted sentences, but to develop a sense of how relationships among words give sense and coherence even to lengthy sentences such as this one.  The exercise promotes an ease with which a writer can convey complex ideas and thoughts in a logical and clear manner....a skill that is quite useful for technical science writing.

Give this exercise a try and see for yourself.

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