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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.

Let Nouns and Verbs Carry the Freight

[Letter-writer’s note: It’s important to me that I write about topics that are important to you. Would you take a minute to let me know what writing-related topics you’d like me to address in future issues of The Habit? I would appreciate it very much. Click here to send me a note.]

Recently, one of my online students asked if I could diagnose the problems that made her prose sound like the work of a “sophisticated fifth-grader.” The very fact that she used the phrase “sophisticated fifth-grader” demonstrated that she was farther along in her writing than she gave herself credit for. Nevertheless, the question got me to thinking about what exactly makes prose sound like the work of a sophisticated juvenile instead of the work of a sophisticated adult (or, better yet, the work of an adult who is freed from the need to sound sophisticated). 

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“Look in thy heart, and write.” Or, failing that, look in the refrigerator.

Valentine’s Day is tomorrow (also Ash Wednesday. I shall resist the easy joke; I recommend that you do too). If you haven’t finished your love letter(s), it is now time to hunker down and put some words on paper.

Sir Philip Sidney, the sixteenth-century poet, began his sonnet cycle Astrophil and Stella with a love poem about the difficulty of writing love poems. If you only read one Sidney poem in Survey of British Lit, it was probably “Loving in truth, and fain in truth my love to show.” After listing the various ways the poet has failed to find inspiration (mostly by reading other poems), the sonnet ends with this memorable couplet:

     Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
     “Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write.”

I appreciate Sidney’s reminder that looking to other writers can only get you so far. Eventually, you’ve got to stop reading and face the blank page or the blinking cursor. But I’ve got some things to say about that advice, “Look in thy heart, and write.” 

If you find that looking into your own heart yields consistently good writing, I don’t have much to say to you on this Valentine’s Eve. The Lord bless you and keep you, and make his face to shine on you. For my part, looking in my heart tends to be the cause of my love-letter writing problems, not the solution. I usually don’t know what’s going on in my heart, and the more I do know, the less I’m able to put it into words. There are plenty of heart-related cliches ready to form up and march out, but my beloved deserves better than that, and so does yours.

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Think Outside the Quotation Marks

In last week’s letter about “strong” verbs, I made a few remarks about verbs of attribution–those verbs by which a  writer identifies the speaker of a piece of dialogue. As I considered the topic over the last few days, I kept coming back to a truth that I often tell my writing students: In dialogue, the words outside the quotations marks are just as important as the words inside the quotation marks. 

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Sidney towers five feet tall. Some thoughts on strong verbs.

“Use strong verbs” is the kind of oft-repeated writing advice that might help a bad writer become a mediocre writer, but it won’t do much to help a good writer become an excellent writer. This old chestnut is an oversimplification–or, one is tempted to say, a debasement–of some excellent writing advice: For every sentence you write, figure out where the action is, and use the verb that most precisely depicts that action. Don’t worry about whether the verb is strong or unique or engaging or unusual. Ask only whether it is the precise verb that helps your reader envision the action that you wish to portray.

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Mistakes Were Made: Using the Passive Voice

The passive voice is a favorite of academics (“A study was conducted…”), politicians (“Mistakes were made…”), business memo writers (“The shipping department will henceforth be outsourced…”) and other communicators we love to hate. Indeed, the passive voice causes a lot of heartache for readers and writers alike. Somewhere along the line, you have probably been told to avoid passive voice. That’s not bad advice, except for the fact that sometimes the passive voice is exactly what you need. I just used it, in fact, in the sentence before last.

“Avoid passive voice” is a helpful rule of thumb; but it’s only a rule of thumb. The deeper rule is this: Make active voice your default. And the rule has this corollary: Use passive voice only when you have a good reason to.
 

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Conveying Information, Building a Scene

This week one of my writing students submitted a very moving story about the fallout that occurred in a family when a boy received a Christmas present that his parents couldn’t afford. The story started with a great image: “The catalogs arrived in the same truck that brought the bills–a pile of shiny magazines full of things the Kramers would never afford, topped by a pink envelope that read, ‘FINAL NOTICE.'”

Every time you write, you are doing at least two things: you are conveying information, but you are also creating an experience for the reader. To put it another way, you are conveying information, and you are inviting your reader into a scene. I am forever urging my students to focus on creating scenes and to trust that the information will take care of itself. 

By “inviting a reader into a scene” I mostly mean giving the reader something to look at (or perhaps listen to or feel or smell or taste). If you give the reader the right things to look at, you can trust him to collect the information he needs.

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On Finding Your Voice

Kayla C asked, How do I find my written voice, and how will I know I have found it? Sometimes I have a difficult time figuring out whether I am actually writing in my own voice (and what exactly that voice sounds like) or just emulating the voices of writers I admire.
 
“Finding your voice” feels like a monumental task, but here is a simple place to start: in your writing, weed out every sentence and phrase that you can’t imagine saying out loud with a straight face. 

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On a Wedding

A few years back, some friends–Boris and Martha–asked me to give the charge at their wedding. To commemorate my own wedding (21 years ago today), here’s part of what I said… 

The old wedding ceremony from the Book of Common Prayer says that Christ “adorned and beautified” marriage “with his presence and first miracle that he wrought in Cana of Galilee.” You know that story. The wine had given out, so Jesus turned six big stone pots full of water into wine. A hundred gallons of wine.

When they served it out, the guests were astonished—not because Jesus had turned water into wine (they didn’t know that), but because it was better than the wine the host had served first. The steward marveled, “But thou hast kept the good wine until now.”

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The Man Who Planted Trees

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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Regarding Texas–Or, What Love Sees Is True

There are a lot of things to love about Texas, including breakfast tacos, beef brisket, and Lyle Lovett. When I was in Austin last week, Lyle Lovett stood behind me while I waited in line for beef brisket; my heart grew two sizes that day. But the loveliest thing about Texas is the fact that Texans love it so much.

Chesterton wrote, “Men did not love Rome because she was great; she was great because they had loved her.” The same is true of Texas. I have come to love the state my own self, but I must say, to a visitor from Tennessee, the glories of Texas are not self-evident. One suspects that in a place so beloved, there must be more than meets the eye. So one looks again, and glories begin to reveal themselves. As Richard Wilbur says, “What love sees is true.” 

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The Eye Is an Organ of Judgment

I often tell people that Flannery O’Connor once wrote “the eye is an organ of judgment.” Turns out, she never wrote that. When I typed “the eye is an organ of judgment” into the Google machine, the only thing that came back was a picture of me, from a previous issue of The Habit in which I had misquoted Flannery O’Connor. Sorry about that.

In my defense, however, I will say that my misquotation is a pretty good distillation of something that Flannery O’Connor actually did write, in her essay “Writing Short Stories,” which you can find in Mystery and Manners

For the writer of fiction, everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be gotten into it. It involves judgment.

She goes on to say that the student-writer is often so interested in thoughts and emotions that he neglects the concrete and sensory details where storytelling actually happens: 

He thinks that judgment exists in once place and sense-impression in another. But for the fiction writer, judgment begins in the details he sees and how he sees them.

The eye is an organ of judgment. O’Connor is specifically talking about fiction-writing in these passages, but she could be talking about any kind of writing. In fact, she could just as easily be talking about everyday life.

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Beauty that Goes Beyond Taste

When I was in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago, a friend got to telling about the neighbors along her block, just off Magazine Street. One of the more memorable characters was a woman who invited the whole street to her sixtieth birthday party–a party that started at 11pm. Another of her neighbors was a young woman who had late-stage cancer. When she was finally done with hospitals and went home to die, her family came down from whatever northern state they lived in and painted her house for her–blue and purple and white with gold trim. “It was so beautiful,” my friend said. “There is a beauty that goes beyond taste.”

That phrase stuck with me–“a beauty that goes beyond taste.” For one thing, the phrase exposed me utterly. My first reaction to the purple paint and gold trim on one of those lovely old New Orleans houses was, “How tacky.” But if a dying woman wants purple walls and gold trim, and the people who love her most give them to her, tacky is an odd judgment indeed. I’ve been doing some soul-searching, I don’t mind telling you.

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The Creative Cave Man

How did it come to be a foregone conclusion that cave men spent their days clubbing one another and dragging women around by the hair? As GK Chesterton remarked, “I have never happened to come upon the evidence for this idea; and I do not know on what primitive diaries or prehistoric divorce-reports it is founded.” 

In truth, cave men and women left precious little documentary evidence to show what they were doing in their caves. The documentary evidence they did leave, however, reveals that, whatever else early people might have been, they were definitely artists.

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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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