May 23 2013 Editor Assistance Newsletter
You might think that the specific order you use for words in your sentences doesn't matter. After all, the user gets the whole image in the end, right? Actually, it is quite important how you lay out your words to guide your readers.
I use this visual quite a lot when describing writing and reading. Imagine your reader is in a completely dark room. You want them to get to the far end of the room. You can see the entire room. You the author know where the path is going and what the user will see along the way. So you have that overall vision when you read the story. Your reader, on the other hand, can only see ONE STEP in front of them - only that one word coming at them. And then the next word. They have to absorb the words, build mental images, understand them, and then read the next few words.
This is why short, concise sentences are better than long, run-on conglomerations with multiple commas. It's why single, meaningful words like "scampered" are much better than multi-part constructions like "walked quickly and jerkily". You want the reader to see that next stepping stone with clarity. You don't want them to see one thing, then have to realize they were wrong and see something else, and then try to stuff four more thoughts into their head before the whole image is complete.
So let's try some examples to see this in action.
First, one of my favorite poems is The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams. This was written back in 1923. I want you to read this poem line by line. At the end of each line, give thought to what your brain is visualizing so far.
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
See how you first imagine a "red wheel" - and only later realize that you're wrong? That it's actually a wheel barrow? That all sorts of things might have come to mind for "white" - and then you read "chickens"?
There are of course some cases in your story telling where this is going to happen and it's just the way things are. But it's wise to be aware of when it happens and when it doesn't HAVE to happen. Go with direct, powerful words. Your heroine screamed rather than talked loudly. Your hero plummeted rather than fell quickly. You want that word they read to have meaning. You want to avoid having the word first seem to have one meaning, then have to be changed into another meaning.
Here's another example. Read this phrase:
The cat came into the room and looked up. On the desk lay a mouse ...
OK, think about what image you have. Then let's say the rest of the sentence says:
... with its cable disconnected from the computer.
But what if the next part read:
... with its tail twitching as it snored.
Whichever way you read that first half of the sentence - a fuzzy grey mouse or a plastic hardware object - you could be wrong. You could have to re-read the sentence to properly understand it. As an author, you want to keep the story flowing forward, rather than spiraling in confusion. The clearer your story or material is, the easier the reader can flow with it and absorb it naturally.
So for example, say your sentence looks like this one below. Again, remember your reader is seeing it for the very first time and has no idea where it is "going". Try reading this word by word, and seeing what your brain is imagining along the way. This is exactly what your brain does when you read at normal speed, but you don't realize it.
The tall, frumpy, hunched teenage girl walked quickly up the narrow escalator and stopped slowly at the top, turning to wave down to the three short, dark-haired puppies who lay panting at the side of the small fountain, then she smiled wearily and skipped singing down the center of the mall's corridor, passing three shops of candy along the way, glancing inside their glass windows to the pitch-dark interiors, wishing she had more money in her pocket of dusty lint with which to buy a few novels about France.
Wow, what a scene! The author might think this is great. The author knows what the whole scene looks like. To the author, this flows out stream-of-consciousness and has a certain feel to it. But to the poor reader, this is just a nightmare. They see something tall. But wait, it's frumpy. What does that mean? But it's also hunched. Maybe it's an elderly woman. Oh! It's a teenaged girl. She's walking ... oh she's walking quickly! And she's walking up! She's walking up an escalator? And she stops, but she stops slowly.
You can see how this shakes someone out of being in the "mood". Far from a stream of consciousness, it's a bunch of staggered stops. The reader's experience is far different than the author's intentions.
So there are many keys here.
* Break long, complex sentences up into shorter bites. Yes, of course you want to vary sentence length and structure so there's a nice balance. Still, once you go past three commas, something is usually off.
* Examine how you present images. Try to do so in a visually clear manner. Start with the important details and fill in the gaps.
* Show, don't tell. Don't say the girl is "frumpy". That is quite vague. Instead, describe her clothing so the reader can SEE she is frumpy. Maybe she has on an ill-fitting, faded dress of orange floral patterns usually seen on someone twice her age.
* Read it out loud. A great way to build an ear for this is to read poetry. Lots of poetry. GOOD poetry :). Build a sense for how good poems create rhythms and moods. Then let that infuse your own words.
What are your thoughts on word order? Come share them in our writing forums!
Lisa Shea, owner
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