Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sentence Content vs. Style

In this series, I've been talking about how to construct sentences that convey your ideas clearly and in a manner that readers find interesting.  I've been providing examples of exercises suggested by Stanley Fish in his book How to Write a Sentence.

In this post, I continue with a discussion of how to develop your writing skills using simple ideas or sentences as starting points. Fish emphasizes that to develop your skill at writing well-constructed sentences, it doesn't matter what the content is. In fact, he argues that the less interesting the content, the more useful they are in getting you to focus on developing form and style.  Once you master the techniques, then content becomes important. For scientists writing about their research, the general content is already specified by the topic of the study and the results of the experiments.  If I used science examples, those of you who are in science would be focusing on the content and whether it is accurate or contains factual errors, whether you are familiar or not with the topic, and whether it is sufficiently detailed or is missing key elements. For this reason, I've been using sentences taken from literature and non-science topics.  In some cases, however, I've provided examples from the scientific literature to examine how these ideas can be applied to science writing.  But these have been introduced after the technique has been explained and illustrated with a non-science example.

One sentence form that can be useful in scientific writing relates to the art of argument.  In their book, They Say/I Say, authors Graff and Birkenstein describe a sentence structure in which conventional wisdom is stated followed by a statement of disagreement:

"They say that women are equal to men, but I say women who seek to be equal to men lack ambition." 

Graff and Birkenstein offer a number templates for different forms of argument, such as the one above, which not only provide structure but can also suggest ideas for arguments that might not otherwise occur. You can take almost any commonly-held belief and write a sentence like the one above. I selected an example that relates to this blog (gender equality) and wrote not only a contradictory statement, but added a little twist to it....one that had not occurred to me until I forced myself to come up with an opposing argument.  This effect is what Fish argues arises from a focus on sentence structures, especially very restrictive structures. The more restrictive, the more creative you tend to be to fulfill the exercise.

The point is that by considering specific structures of sentences, you can discover new insights.  The example I gave previously of time-traveling sentences is another template that can stimulate creativity and discovery of relationships one might not otherwise uncover.  In that exercise, we had the task of writing a sentence that linked actions across different time zones: past, present, future. We might further restrict the exercise by requiring that the sentence begin with the word "having".  An example might be:

"Having traveled a tiring distance, he slumped to the ground where passersby later would glance quickly then avert their gaze not wishing to become entangled in whatever troubles had felled him."

Another example:

"Having awakened in a strange room, she gingerly arose from the bed not wanting to make any noises that might alert others in the house to her renewed consciousness."

We can do this all day...create good sentences that start with a specific wordThe task is much more difficult without restrictions, partly because of more choices from which one can choose.  An analogy might be a dinner menu. In some restaurants, especially ethnic establishments, there are many pages to the menu with tens of dozens of items.  There are so many choices that the customer has trouble choosing among, not only food groups (fish, poultry, beef), but how they are prepared (baked, broiled, fried) and with what ingredients (myriad choices).  Similarly, when we are faced with an exercise to "write a good sentence", our minds are overwhelmed with the possibilities, and we may have difficulty deciding what the topic should be or in what style we should structure a "good sentence".  At the other extreme, are restaurants that offer perhaps five entrees each evening.  With the latter, one can focus and more easily decide between a fish entree and a beef entree (there being only one dish of each prepared in a specific way).  Similarly, with a restriction to write a sentence that reduces our choices, we are able to decide more easily.

The other reason that restrictions are helpful in writing exercises is that they encourage us to be creative.  We have to be creative to design a good sentence that meets the criteria imposed on the exercise. If there are no restrictions, we are more likely to write a less interesting sentence.  I mention restrictions and their impact on writing because it might be helpful when you find yourself having difficulties writing about a particular topic or to make a specific point.  You may know generally what you want to say, but can't think of an interesting or compelling way to write it. Or you may have written a long, rambling narrative that must be shortened considerably to fit within a required word limit (an abstract, for example).  This is where imposing a restriction might jump-start your creative juices.  

For example, you may want to convey the idea that your experimental approach was critical to uncovering an important insight...that a different approach, perhaps one that has been routinely used, would have failed.  You are having difficulty coming up with a good sentence to capture this idea.  You can't even think of how to begin such a sentence.  Let's say that we set a restriction on the sentence so that it must begin with the phrase, "had we".  Now we have not only the first two words of the sentence, but they impose a structure that fits the contrasting ideas or outcomes that you wish to convey: 

"Had we only compared the growth responses of Species A and B grown separately, without also examining their growth in mixture, we would have incorrectly concluded that the treatment favored the growth of Species A and failed to recognize that competition from Species B could prevent Species A from benefiting from the treatment."   

Now you have a fairly good, although complex, sentence that describes your approach and simultaneously explains why your choice was the superior one in this study (and hints at why previous work perhaps has failed).  You may want to further revise this sentence or even change it completely, but the exercise has forced you to get the basic points written out and structured so that they are coordinated and positioned in relation to each other within the sentence.  

Obviously, you cannot afford to apply this restriction method to every sentence you write.  What I'm suggesting is that it is a way to stimulate creativity at points where you have drawn a blank in your writing.  The next time you find yourself staring at the page and thinking you can't imagine how to write about some idea, try this method and see if it helps.  

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