(This post takes about 12 minutes to read.)
If you like puzzles, you should like playing with sentences…as it turns out, “writing” is a lot like playing with LEGOs. All it takes is determination to have fun and knowledge of a few phrases that allow us to see words and clusters of words as our puzzle pieces, which can be snapped together to create just about anything we can imagine. Having fun putting sentences together will make your writing a little better.
1) HAVE FUN WHEN YOU WRITE
First of all, any kind of writing should involve FUN. In an article defining “fun,” (http://drlwilson.com/ARTICLES/FUN.htm), Dr. L.D. Wilson comes up with some pretty good definitions, including the following:
· Fun Is Knowing that the World Is Slightly Crazy, or More than Slightly Crazy or Insane, so Don’t Get Upset about It and Don’t Take Things Too Seriously
· Fun Is Learning how To Enjoy Wherever You Are and Whatever You Are Doing, No Matter How Stupid It Seems To Be
· Fun Is Knowing that the World Is about Chaos
· Fun Is Being Creative
· Fun Is Knowing that Failure Is Not Even Remotely Possible
· Fun Is Knowing Deeply that Life Is a Kind of Game of Soul Evolution
· Fun Is the Idea that Life Is To Be Enjoyed
Most of us take the workplace writing we need to do too seriously.
It’s true…we usually write about serious issues and deliver serious information to those who need it. And we want to be taken seriously at work. But so many people dislike writing or worse. Instead of being an unpleasant chore, writing could be a chance to have a daily mindfulness practice that allows us to treat others as we’d like to be treated. Such a practice must include having curiosity, imagination, and fun.
Most of the reasons why people don’t like “writing” come from experiences we had in school and college.
I spent a year as the head Children’s Librarian at an inner-city neighborhood branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. Our little space in a converted firehouse was a sanctuary for kids in a pretty tough neighborhood called “Pigtown.” Kids came to read stories and look at the pictures in all kinds of books and magazines and to hear the stories I would read to them. I got to go to most of the inner-city schools in our area and talk about the library and read stories to the kids, who loved being read to.
My wife and I volunteered to teach poetry writing at our sons’ elementary school one year. We spent several months doing three poetry-writing workshops with every individual class from kindergarten through 5th grade. We then published a poetry anthology, Dragon Smoke, that had a poem by every kid in the school. We showed all the students that writing can be fun.
But somewhere along the line, “writing” got serious, became a matter of “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “bad.”
You can’t write well when you’re stressing. No matter how serious the issue you’re writing about, you can still take some pleasure in doing it intentionally, in being more in control of the words and sentences, and paragraphs, and documents you must assemble…writing is really about “assemblage.” Think LEGOs!
So stop worrying about the possibility that your writing will FAIL, what my sister, a gifted therapist, calls an acronym for First Attempt In Learning. Look back to that “inner child,” still craving a good story and captivating pictures. Look back to that “inner child,” who loved playing games, who loved to build things. Have fun.
2) PLAY WITH YOUR SENTENCES
In school, for me and many other students—most other students?—grammar was no fun. Students I’ve worked with typically call it “boring,” “stupid,” “too hard,” and “good for nothing.”
That I find myself showing graduate students in my Editing class in our Professional Writing Program at Towson University how to diagram any kind of sentence is surprising to my students…but even more surprising to me.
I do it because I’ve realized that grammar is far, far simpler than we were lead to believe (most any sentence has about 5 working parts—see a future blog post: the grammar universe). And knowing grammar basics gives me a chance to “see” the puzzle pieces I can use to build sentences…paragraphs…documents. Again, think LEGOs!
I’ve actually come to define “grammar” very broadly as all the elements involved in writing…for me, they are identified by the HOCs and LOCs (higher and lower order concerns), which I define as CONTENT, ORGANIZATION, DOCUMENT DESIGN, paragraphs, sentences, word choices, and mechanics. Our textbook, Mastering Workplace Writing, is really a “grammar” for these 7 elements, a toolbox of concepts and techniques for “playing with” these elements.
But now, let me introduce just one aspect of sentences…the idea of “branching.” (No, I didn’t invent the idea, but I wish it were used A LOT more often in writing classes. You can GOOGLE the term for more information.)
To qualify as a sentence, there must be a subject and a verb, called “a clause,” that can stand alone to express a complete idea…called “an independent clause” (or “a main clause”).
To keep the discussion simple, we should also realize that what comes after the verb can be a direct object (a noun that literally RECIEVES the action of the verb: You HIT me) or a complement (notice the E after the L—this word comes from the word “complete,” so a complement is something that “completes"; complements after verbs are adjectives or nouns…sometimes an adverb phrase: He IS fun; She IS a champ; They ARE in the garden.)
Given this simple structure, there can be…very broadly speaking…only two kinds of sentences:
1. Sentences that have a verb that shows action;
2. Sentences that have a verb that doesn’t show action (usually it just shows “connection” between the subject and something else).
Here are a few sentences in the first category:
You ATE the snails.
The snails WERE EATEN by you.
Snoring WAS DONE by you.
The multiple, shifting crossroad of meaning ENRICH every sentence.
Here are a few sentences in the second category:
You ARE smart.
You ARE a helicopter.
Your helicopter IS in the garage.
My milk TURNED sour.
I FEEL so happy.
What’s important is to realize that every complete sentence has a main clause (a subject and verb-with direct object or complement—that can stand alone to express a complete thought).
Let’s call this the sentence core (the main clause in a sentence).
For this brief lesson, I want to introduce the concept of “branching.” Branching is a term that refers to the information that isn’t part of the sentence core.
When this “extra information” comes at the beginning of the sentence—so it is to the LEFT of the core, it’s described as LEFT BRANCHING.
When I am in Spain, I eat lemons. (LEFT-BRANCHING SENTENCE)
When this “extra information” comes at the END of the sentence—so it is to the RIGHT of the core, it’s described as RIGHT BRANCHING.
I eat lemons, when I am in Spain. (RIGHT-BRANCHING SENTENCE)
When this “extra information” comes in between the elements of the sentence core—so it is in the MIDDLE of the core, it’s described as MID-BRANCHING.
The young students, who often dine in Spain, love lemons. (MID-BRANCHING SENTENCE)
The giant dragon, who stands guard at the gates, eats, every morning and evening, four boxes of lemons.
Studies have indicated that right-branching sentences can be easiest for readers to understand because they supply the main point first. Mid-branching sentences can be the most difficult to understand because they interrupt the sentence core and can make it difficult for readers to connect the key parts of the sentence core.
Here’s an example of a mid-branching sentences that might be tough to read because it puts too many words between the subject and verb in the sentence core:
The idea, which was first mentioned in 1523 in a letter from an early French explorer who wanted to purchase all the trees in the northern forests, chop them down, and export them back to Europe and the rest of the world, and, in the process, become fabulously wealthy, was too soon realized.
Sentences that branch to the left are sometimes called periodic sentences.
Having lost his true love, his livelihood, his house, and his standing in the community, Pierre vanished. (periodic sentence=left-branching)
To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, that is genius. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Though they may be just a bit more difficult for readers to understand, periodic sentences can build some drama before delivering their main idea in the core, which comes at the end.
They are especially useful in workplace writing to provide a bit of background, a bit of context, or some necessary qualification before the main point comes. Consider the following:
Even though its budget had been cut in half over the past three years, the department still provided all necessary services.
Widely known to most people as “fools gold,” iron pyrite fooled many greenhorns.
Although we lacked complete data from 2015 through 2016, we concluded that the past ten years had been a success for most of the investors.
Right-branching sentences, sometimes called “loose” or “cumulative” sentences, allow writers to state a main point then add useful qualifying information. Consider the following:
"Llanblethian hangs pleasantly, with its white cottages, and orchard and other trees, on the western slope of a green hill; looking far and wide over green meadows and little or bigger hills, in the pleasant plain of Glamorgan; a short mile to the south of Cowbridge, to which smart little town it is properly a kind of suburb." ~Thomas Carlyle
He majored in science, even though he really wanted to study art, philosophy, and religion.
Here’s a paragraph from the New York Times. Notice how it uses left-, right-, and mid-branching sentences.
For the first time in nearly 30 years, Queen Elizabeth II failed to attend a Christmas Day church service. She missed the service because the 90-year-old queen continues to recover from a heavy cold and will stay indoors to assist with her recovery. The queen, who had already been forced to change her travel plans for the holiday period because of the illness, planned to participate in the royal family Christmas celebrations during the day.
What’s the big take-away? Go through the sentences in your paragraphs. See if changing the way they branch could create stronger emphasis and coherence.
What comes at the end of a sentence usually receives a little more emphasis than what comes at the beginning. However, as we’ve suggested, studies show that right-branching sentences are a bit easier to understand.
Consider what receives the most emphasis in the following three versions of the same idea:
In 1886, the Statue of Liberty was given to the United States by the people of France.
The people of France, in 1886, gave the United States the Statue of Liberty.
The Statue of Liberty was given to the United States by the people of France in 1886.
Experiment with your writing…with these puzzle pieces. Think LEGOs! Your job as a writer is to design a reading experience for your reader. Making sure the most important information receives proper emphasis depends, to a large extent, on placement.
See what happens when you put your main point first in a paragraph/section and then explain. See what happens when the main point gets buried in the middle or delayed until the end.
Above all, when you must “fix” a rough draft, pay attention to how sentences branch.
You might go further and describe whole paragraphs as “branching.” Paragraphs that deliver their main point first and then explain are right-branching paragraphs. If the main point comes in the middle, the paragraph might branch to the left and right. If the main point comes at the end, the paragraph is left-branching. Which organization works best?
Writing is a puzzle…learn to see the pieces and have fun with it.