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The Habit Blog is the archive of The Habit Weekly. It is a trove of insight, wisdom, and practical advice on a variety of writing topics.

Actors and Actions, Subjects and Verbs

A recurring theme in my teaching is the importance of aligning the grammar of a sentence with the action that the sentence depicts. I am forever trying to get writers to stay in the habit of expressing action in the form of a verb, with the actor as the subject of that verb. Your reader burns to know the answer to the question “Who did what?” and her eyes and her brain are wired to seek first the subject position (who) and the verb position (did what) in every sentence she reads.

If this idea of expressing actions as verbs and actors as subjects seems self-evident, it’s not. Language is exceedingly flexible, and it provides a multitude of ways to express action in ways other than a good old-fashioned Subject-Verb-Object main clause. The following list is just the tip of the iceberg:

  • The passive voice places somebody besides the actor in the subject slot: I took the bull by the horns becomes The bull was taken by the horns by me.

  • Nominalization turns the verb into a noun: I failed completely becomes My failure was complete.

  • A gerund also converts a verb into a noun: I swim constantly because I love it becomes Constant swimming is my passion or I love swimming.

  • Once you have turned the verb into a noun, you can make it the object of a preposition, so turning it into a modifier: My love of swimming keeps me in the water constantly (In this example, note that both actions I swim and I love get turned into nouns). The completeness of my failure became obvious to all.

  • A participle also turns a verb into a modifier: I went upstairs and sulkedbecomes Having gone upstairs, I sulked.

  • A subordinate clause pulls action out of the main through-line of a sentence and makes it a modifier: I went upstairs and sulked becomes I went upstairs, where I sulked.

The astute reader will notice that in some of these examples, the sentence actually works better when you move the action out of the subject-verb nexus. “I love swimming” turns the subject-verb I swim into a gerund, but it’s at least as good a sentence as “I swim because I love it.”

As I often say, every “problematic” construction in the English language exists because there are situations in which it’s not problematic but exactly what you need.

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In Which I Analyze Two Lovely Sentences to Within an Inch of their Lives

My friend April Pickle encouraged me to write an issue of The Habit in which I pick a couple of sentences I like and tell what I like about them. This shall be that issue. And the sentences I shall write about come from Christian Wiman’s memoir, My Bright Abyss:

They do not happen now, the sandstorms of my childhood, when the western distance ochred and the square emptied, and long before the big wind hit, you could taste the dust on your tongue, could feel the earth under you–and even something in you–seem to loosen slightly. Soon tumbleweeds began to skip and nimble by, a dust devil flickered firelessly in the vacant lot across the street from our house, and birds began rocketing past with their wings shut as if they’d been flung.

I have never experienced a sandstorm. Dust devils never flicker firelessly in my leafy neighborhood here in Nashville, Tennessee. So, to use a phrase I used a couple of weeks ago, these evocative sentences do something for me that I can’t do for myself. They invite me into a scene that I don’t otherwise have access to.

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On Receiving (and Ignoring) Criticism

Every time I start a new online class, I send my students an introductory email that includes the following “Word About Feedback”: 

I am working on the assumption that you signed up for this course because you genuinely want to improve as a writer. And if you really want to improve as a writer, you need criticism. You need encouragement too, but you need criticism a lot more. I used to put a lot of time and energy into softening my criticism so that my writing students wouldn’t get discouraged. I have decided that this not a good use of my time and not a service to my students. My critique of your writing will be direct and blunt–and, I’m quite confident, on-target. I should also say that if you’re farther along the path as a writer, you can expect my critique to be even more direct and more blunt. I criticize because I care. I’m not joking. I trust that you care enough to take my critique in the spirit in which it’s given. If that’s not what you want from this course, please let me know.

I realize that it can be hard to receive criticism. Offering up a piece of writing feels a lot like offering up a piece of yourself, so “There are a few things wrong with this piece” can sound like “There are a few things wrong with you.” 

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On Not Being the Smartest Person in the Room

In a recent interview with Terri Gross, the writer David Sedaris remarked, “I’m rarely the smartest person in the room. I have other qualities, but searing intelligence is not one of them.” 

David Sedaris is a hilarious writer and an excellent prose stylist, so it is tempting to chalk this up to false humility. But I’ve been pondering his remarks in my heart, and I think there’s a lot of wisdom in separating excellent writing from “searing intelligence.” 

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Narrowing and Expanding: Essential and Non-Essential Elements

This week one of my online students wrote, “My friend, Monique, became a certified naturalist last year.” This sentence put me in a bit of a quandary. I try to care about the whole person (as you will find if you register for my upcoming Writing with Flannery O’Connor class), and I didn’t know whether this writer needed punctuation advice or relationship advice. The commas around Monique suggest that Monique is the writer’s only friend. If, however, the writer has other friends besides Monique, those commas are extraneous and misleading. I hope, for my student’s sake, that this is merely faulty punctuation, which is easy to fix. There are worse things than punctuation errors, and being nearly friendless is one of them.

Today I am talking about punctuating essential and non-essential elements. One of the eight or ten uses of the comma is to set off so-called “non-essential” words, phrases, and clauses in a sentence. I’m not crazy about that terminology “essential” and “non-essential.” It makes one think “important” and “less important” or, perhaps, “adding meaning” and “not adding meaning.” If you add any word, phrase, or clause to a sentence, hopefully it is important and has meaning. If not, my advice to you is to leave it out of the sentence entirely, not to set it off with commas. 

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Flipping the Switch

“If you want to be a writer, be a reader.” This may be the most commonly-offered writing advice of all. And it’s good advice as far as it goes. But encouraging writers to read has always felt to me like encouraging teenage boys to eat three meals a day and maybe a couple of snacks. People who want to write tend to be people who are already reading. I think. Right?

So if you want to write and you don’t already read voraciously, you should probably start. But for me–and, I suspect, for many of you–the big question isn’t How do a read more? The bigger question is How do I stop reading and start writing? Or, to put it another way, How do I flip the switch from consuming to producing?

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Begin without the End in Mind

Begin with the end in mind. That’s Habit 2 of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In most human endeavors, this is excellent advice. In large matters and small, beginning with the end in mind helps ensure that the steps you take move you in the right direction. I heartily commend this advice to you…in all areas of your life besides writing.

This letter is Part 2 of a series about getting started on a new story or essay. Today’s advice is this: Be willing to begin without the end in mind. And if you do have the end in mind when you begin, hold it very loosely.

Of the four novels I’ve written, only one ended the way I originally thought it was going to end. You can’t be sure how a story ends until you get into it. As I said last week, you have to trust that once you get the pen moving and the neurons firing, good things are going to happen.

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Make Friends with the Inner Critic

I’ve gotten a few questions lately about how to start writing a book or story or essay. For many writers, the blank page or blank screen is a terror and a seemingly insurmountable barrier. So how do you get started?

There are a million substitutes for starting. You can outline, you can puzzle out plot problems, you can research. For years I’ve been wrestling around with a particularly sticky point-of-view problem for a novel that I “want” to write. I put “want” in quotation marks because if I really wanted to write it, I would be writing it instead of wrestling around with point-of-view problems. 

So, again, how do you get started? You start wherever you can start. What captured your imagination in the first place? What image or idea made you want to write a particular story or essay? Start writing there, and see what happens.

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There’s Always More Where That Came From

I worked for a while at an advertising agency, writing ad copy and brochures and lots of direct mail (an art form that the unwashed masses sometimes call junk mail).

One day on my way home from the office I drove past a man checking his mail. It happened to be trash day, and he had wheeled his trash can out to the curb, right by the mailbox, so there he stood pulling junk mail out of his mailbox and depositing it directly into his trash can. I couldn’t help imagining my own carefully crafted prose meeting a similar fate in trash cans throughout this great country.

In short, writing brochures and junk mail wasn’t what I had in mind when I first thought about getting into the writing racket (though I should point out that if you’re hoping to get paid for your writing, you might want to skip juvenile swamp fiction altogether and go straight to junk mail).

But I digress. I bring up my stint at the ad agency because during that time I learned a lesson that has shaped my work ever since.

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The Next Telephone Pole. Writing Books by Writing Sentences.

We have a tradition in our house: whenever one of our children turns fifteen, he or she has to train for and run the Music City Half-Marathon with me. It’s an opportunity for regular father-juvenile time, but just as importantly it’s an opportunity for my kids to experience the truth that they can do something seemingly impossible (running 13.1 miles doesn’t come naturally for anybody in the Rogers family) if they start small and keep making cumulative gains.

I came to running rather late in life. I was 38 when a friend and I decided to train for the half-marathon together. We started one cold January morning by running one mile (or maybe it was a half-mile?), and it left us both gasping and wheezing by the end. But we soldiered on and managed to run the half-marathon in April. We were gasping and wheezing by the end of that, too, but still…

As it turned out, that was an important thing for me to do. I needed to try something new, to realize that I could do things I didn’t think I could do. I was in the middle of a paralyzing bout of writer’s block (which should probably be the subject of a future issue of The Habit), and learning that I could push through to finish a half-marathon helped convince me that I could also push through to finish a couple of books that were bedeviling me. 

Anyway, the Music City Half-Marathon is this upcoming Saturday, and I have a fifteen-year-old this year, so we’ll be two of the 40,000 or so people running the streets of Nashville that morning. To commemorate the day, I am reproducing a piece I wrote for the Rabbit Room a few years ago after running the half-marathon with another of my sons. 

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Punctuation, Episode 3 of 3: A Word About Dashes

Language is one of those things that come naturally to human beings. People are born without the ability to talk, but as they hang out with people who cantalk, the vast majority pick it right up. I know people who could talk all day–often in complete sentences–having never spent a day in school. Some of these people aren’t even potty trained yet. 

And, by the way, even if you think of yourself as being bad at grammar, it isn’t true. You get your grammar correct almost all the time. For instance, you have never accidentally placed an adjective after the noun it modifies. That is to say, you have never said “llama disgruntled” when you meant to say “disgruntled llama.” And even if you can’t identify an adjective clause, you have never made the mistake of putting one before the noun it modifies. You have never said “the who teaches my karate class retired librarian” when you meant to say “the retired librarian who teaches my karate class.”

But if spoken language comes naturally and organically to human beings, writing doesn’t. Punctuation certainly doesn’t. It’s something you have to learn. And, unfortunately, writing is not merely a matter of putting down on paper the words that you would utter if you were speaking. Spoken language is incredibly rich and layered–more rich and more layered than can be expressed in writing. Besides the words themselves, the speaker has at his or her disposal a number of tools: intonation, facial expressions, hand gestures, pacing, and other tools that I am no doubt forgetting. Furthermore, the hearer’s capacity for interpreting all those signals is equally astonishing. 

Writing, by comparison, is pretty flat. I find that about half of writing instruction is helping people make their writing feel less flat and more like spoken language. But the other half of writing instruction is making sure that writers stay within the comparatively narrow confines of intelligibility

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The Uses of the Colon

Last week I started a short punctuation series on semicolons, colons, and dashes. I had said it was going to be a two-part series, but I was only kidding myself. Once a person starts talking about colons and dashes, it’s hard to stop. So we find ourselves not at the end of a two-part series, but spang in the middle of a three-part series: colons today, dashes next week.

By way of review, the semicolon is not a very flexible punctuation mark (though I have lots of students who find very creative uses for the semicolon). A semicolon can be used to separate items in a complex series (that is, lists in which one or more items includes a comma) or it can be used to join two independent clauses into a compound sentence. That’s it: any other use of the semicolon constitutes a punctuation error.

Colons and dashes, on the other hand, are both a little more flexible than semicolons. For the purposes of this letter, I am going to stick to the uses of the colon within prose sentences and skip the many specialized uses in business memos, titles, bibliographical citations, scriptural citations, etc.

In preparing for this letter, I ran across a summary of the colon that I found very helpful: a colon signifies expectation or addition. In every proper use of the colon, you are adding something to a sentence that is already (grammatically) complete without it. The colon, then, either sets up an expectation that is fulfilled by the information after the colon, or it signals that you are about to give the reader bonus information that will add to his or her understanding of what you just said.

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What Are Semicolons for?

Habit reader recently asked about the use of semicolons, colons, and dashes. These punctuation marks can be exceedingly helpful for expressing nuance in your prose. But if you misuse them, bad things can start happening to good people. Nuance is a delicate flower; it wilts in the presence of faulty punctuation. This week’s issue of The Habit is the first of a two-part series on the effective use of these three punctuation marks. We’ll talk about semicolons today and colons and dashes next week.

The semicolon is not an especially flexible punctuation mark. In fact, it only does two things:

1.A semicolon separates items in a series IF at least one item in the series contains a comma.
This is sometimes called the “complex series” use of the semicolon.  

2.A semicolon joins two independent clauses into a compound sentence.
An independent clause is simply a clause (that is, a string of words containing a subject and a verb) that can stand on its own as a sentence.

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The Man Who Planted Trees

My father-in-law died yesterday after a long and courageous fight with cancer. He was a man of remarkable imagination and vision, and his sanguine attitude toward long-term projects is an example to writers and to anyone else who might feel called to bite off more than they can chew. In his honor, here’s a piece I wrote about him a few years ago.

Until recently, my in-laws had a farm in South Georgia. When they bought the place, its charms weren’t altogether obvious to the casual observer. It was scrubby where it wasn’t planted in pines and swampy where it wasn’t scrubby. But my father-in-law made it the work of twenty years to beautify the place.

When he planted pines, he planted longleaf, the tree that once shaded all of South Georgia–indeed, the tree that towered over nearly every mile of Hernando Desoto’s path from Florida through the Deep South to the Mississippi River.

By the time my father-in-law was born, the longleaf had been logged to near-extinction; when the trees were replaced at all, they were replaced by faster-growing slash and loblolly pines, which produce income twice as fast as longleaf, but always fall well short of the longleaf’s native majesty. Much of South Georgia’s wealth and beauty had once been attached to the longleaf pines, before they were felled and floated down the Ocmulgee and Altamaha to the ocean, then shipped away to be the ribs of great buildings far away from Georgia.  My father-in-law loves his native country; no wonder he planted longleaf. If they take forty years to grow to maturity–well, then, they take forty years. He is a man of imagination and hope.

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The Stories We Live In

Last week the students in my Writing Close to the Earth online class read George Orwell’s classic essay, “Politics and the English Language.” In it, Orwell makes the case that vague, abstract, usually Latinate language is an important tool in the dishonest politician’s tool-belt. 

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.

If you’ve read more than two or three issues ofThe Habit, you are probably aware of my ongoing campaign against vague, abstract language. I agree with Orwell that fuzzy, imprecise language fosters the kind of fuzzy, imprecise thought that allows the worst kind of politician to flourish. 

But lately it has occurred to me that my exhortations to clear, concrete storytelling are incomplete. If storytelling is the most effective vehicle of truth (and I believe it is), it is also, and for the same reasons, the most effective vehicle of falsehood. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” Orwell wrote. True enough. But that doesn’t mean that all clear, concrete, specific language is sincere.

Storytelling, whether fiction or non-fiction, has a unique power to reframe a reader’s or listener’s sense of reality. It says, in effect, “I know you have a lot of ideas about the story you’re living in, but consider the possibility that you are living in a different story altogether.”

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Write Better Description

A couple of weeks ago, I hosted my first webinar, on writing vivid description. I wanted to share an example from that webinar with those of you who weren’t there.

I try not to teach from negative example, but this one sentence manages to violate all four of my guidelines for good description, so I thought you would find it instructive. Allow me to mention that this sentence was written by a person who actually writes quite well. We all have our slip-ups; and as you are about to see, this sentence is only a slip-up, not a spectacularly bad piece of writing. Here it is:

Humble little town homes sat situated above unique cafes on these quaint roads, right where renowned scholars and thinkers and poets had once walked.

See? This isn’t flagrant. It’s the kind of writing you see all the time, and under normal circumstances you might pass right by it and not think about it one way or another. And that’s part of the problem—the reader wouldn’t think about this description one way or another, or envision anything either.

Remember, when you write, you are inviting a reader into a scene. Good description offers experience to the reader in a way that approximates the way experience comes to us in the world God made—through the senses.

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A Word of Thanks for Eugene Peterson

Yesterday one of the dearest saints of our era stepped into the Long Hello. Eugene Peterson, a pastor, teacher, theologian, and writer died after a long illness. Here’s the story from Christianity Today. It draws on a beautiful account by the Peterson family, which reads, in part:

Among his final words were, ‘Let’s go.’ And his joy: my, oh my; the man remained joyful right up to his blessed end, smiling frequently. In such moments it’s best for all mortal flesh to keep silence. But if you have to say something say this: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy.’”

Yes. Holy, Holy, Holy. But also, I want to say a few words about what Eugene Peterson’s work has meant to me. 

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Some Tips for Portraying People

Last week one of my Writing with Flannery O’Connor students asked,

Do you have any tips for describing people’s physical appearances and expressions? I’ve been trying show, not tell, their personalities and emotions, but I’d like to avoid cliches such as ‘she had a heart-shaped face’ or “his eyes shone.” 

That’s an excellent question; it can be very hard to convey a character’s physical appearance. So I thought I’d share my answer with the rest of you.

When you are describing anything in writing–a person’s face, a room, a landscape, anything, really–it is important to ask yourself how much description you need. Your goal is to give your reader just enough to look at so that he feels that he can envision the scene. But it’s a bit of a magic trick, and a bit of a balancing act, because you are actually just giving the reader the impressionthat he can envision the scene. If you provide too much detail, you actually pull the reader out of the scene. 

When it comes to describing a person’s physical features, one or two interesting or unusual features are worth a whole lot more than five or six forgettable physical features. 

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In Which I Shape Young Minds

I once gave a class of creative writers an assignment that required them to write about their hometowns. There was some groaning, so I reminded them that while many of us tend to think of our hometowns as ordinary places not worth writing about, in truth there are no ordinary places, and every place, if you just pay attention, will give you more than enough to write about. I don’t remember specifically, but I probably quoted Wendell Berry: “There are no unsacred places; / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places.”

It wasn’t long before one of my students raised her hand: “But what if you’re from a place that actually is just a stereotypical little town?”

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Every Sentence Is a Promise

Last week’s issue of The Habit had a typo in the subject line. THE SUBJECT LINE! “A New Way to Grow as a Writers,” it read. A typo in a subject line is painful in any case, but given the fact that the whole purpose of the email was to announce Field Notes for Writers, my new subscription-based model for online writing courses—well, the phrase “dark night of the soul” comes to mind. Almost none of you have mocked me to my face, however, and for that I am grateful.

I’ve been telling myself what I would tell anybody in the same situation: typographical errors happen to us all; it’s nothing to get too exercised about. Still, I’ve been thinking all week about why that phrase, “A New Way to Grow as a Writers” is so bothersome. It is bothersome in the way that the phrase 2+3=6 is bothersome.

We human beings crave symmetry and harmony and balance. We can tolerate discord, but only for so long: we want resolution. 

The equal sign in the middle of a math equation is a kind of promise. It says, Whatever the complexity that appears to the left of this sign, I can show you a simpler, more comprehensible equivalent to the right of this sign

The equal sign is also a commentary on the powers of the human mind. It says, The world is a complicated place with an impossible number of variations. But watch what happens when the human mind goes to work on it: Symmetry. Order. Harmony. 

When you see that an equal sign has not kept its promise, you feel the inequality as unresolved discord, just as surely as you feel it when a piece of music fails to resolve. That is to say, the trouble you feel when you see 2+3=6 is aesthetic trouble, not just cerebral trouble.

Like the equal sign, every sentence makes a number of promises. At every level, writing promises to bring order out of chaos.

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