Clarity Vs. Tension

One of the first principles of clear writing is to get to the grammatical subject early in a sentence, and to get to the verb soon thereafter. Every time a reader encounters a sentence, she wants to know who did what. She may want to know other things too, but she always wants to know that. The reader’s brain is wired, therefore, to look for the subject and the verb (who did what?). When you write sentences that get straight to the subject and verb, you are making life easier for your reader.

Consider this compound sentence from David French:

I discussed public policy and big historic trends, but I tried to focus on how those trends impact individual human beings.

Each of the independent clauses in this sentence starts with the subject and verb: I discussedI tried. Most English sentences start with a subject and verb, by the way; there’s nothing special about this one. I chose this example because all of its nouns are abstract (unless you count human beings, which I don’t). But as abstract as this sentence is, you had no trouble making sense of it, partly because the writer quickly gets you to and through the subject-verb nexus.

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For Buddy Greene and Jeff Taylor, Friendship Is a Creative Force

For a decade and a half, Buddy Greene and Jeff Taylor have been making music together in a wide variety of venues and a wide variety of costumes. They are remarkable as performers, but even more remarkable is their friendship and good humor. As Jeff says, even a worst-case scenario performance is redeemed when it becomes a sad story told for laughs shared between friends.

The Long Middle

Artist and graphic novelist John Hendrix posted this image of what it feels like to do a big creative project (you can click to see a bigger version):

That looks about right to me. You start with a big idea that you find exciting—otherwise, you wouldn’t start at all. But creative work isn’t really about having big, exciting ideas. That’s the easy part. The hard part is giving the big idea a form so that it can exist outside your head and heart and do its work in the heads and hearts of other people.

When you start doing creative work, it’s easy to get discouraged. As John’s picture has it, you’re liable to fall off the creative high and into the Pit of Despair the moment you start.

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One Trick for Writing Better Essays

When you start writing an essay or column or blog post, you likely have some good ideas that you want to write about. But you almost certainly haven’t had your best ideas yet. Those come later in the process.

I’ve read and marked a few thousand student essays, and there’s a pattern I’ve seen I-don’t-know-how-many times: Page 1 is okay. Page 2 is fine. Page 3 is nothing special. Page 4 is passable. Then, toward the bottom of Page 4, the student-writer says something brilliant. But by now we’re on Page 5, and this was supposed to be a 4-5 page essay, so instead of developing the brilliant idea, the student-writer brings the essay in for a landing with a passable conclusion recapitulating the passable observations articulated in the first four pages.

That moment of brilliance toward the end—where did it come from? It almost certainly came from the four pages of mediocrity that preceded it. When you read an excellent essay, it’s easy to imagine the essay growing out of the writer’s excellent ideas. I think it’s more likely that the excellent ideas grow out of the essay. To put it another way, the most reliable path to the good stuff runs through the not-especially-good stuff.

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Jessica Hooten Wilson Has Suffered from Imposter Syndrome

Jessica Hooten Wilson is Louise Cowan Scholar in Residence at the University of Dallas. She’s a much sought-after speaker and the author of books about Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor. Spring of 2022 will see the release of her new book, The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints. The academic world is a rich source of Sad Stories Told for Laughs. In this episode, Jessica Hooten Wilson tells some of hers.

Covered In Dust and Glory

There’s something strange about the following sentence:

When Cindy came into the restaurant with her new boyfriend, she spotted her old boyfriend eating a hamburger, fries, and his heart out.

The name for that particular kind of strangeness is zeugma (pronounced ZOOG-muh). Zeugma is a construction in which one word (in this case eating) modifies or governs two or more other words in such a way that it applies in a different sense to different words. “Cindy spotted her old boyfriend eating a burger and fries” makes one kind of sense. “Cindy spotted her old boyfriend eating his heart out” makes a different kind of sense. Put those ideas together in a compound direct object, and you have a zeugma. (You might have a syllepsis, which is a specific kind of zeugma, but we’re getting technical enough already without getting into the distinction between syllepsis and zeugma, which I don’t understand my own self.)

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Leisure World

When I was growing up in Warner Robins, Georgia, there was a subdivision called “Leisure World.” It wasn’t a retirement community or a neighborhood of vacation homes. It was just a place where people lived with their families. Best I could tell, most of the grown-ups had jobs. Leisure World, in other words, wasn’t a world of only leisure.

It didn’t occur to me that Leisure World was a funny name for a subdivision until after I had moved away. The neighborhood association eventually wised up and changed the name to Beaver Glen. Which seems a shame to me. I think Aristotle would think it a shame too.

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Ellie Holcomb Paid Her Dues. In the Lunchroom.

Singer-songwriter Ellie Holcomb has just released a new solo album called Canyon—which, she says, is about a deeper sorrow, a higher hope, and the brokenness that is integral to our humanity. Hopefully she will come back in a later episode to talk about that project.

But in this episode we talk about the times she and her husband Drew found themselves performing in community college cafeterias, the time they got kicked out of a community college cafeteria and instead had to play a study room, and other sad stories told for laughs.

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