Friday, January 3, 2014

To Notice How You Write

It’s everyone’s favorite time: Grammar time!

If you’ve ever heard me complain before, and most people have, then you know how much it bothers me when people focus on grammar issues and technicalities in constructive criticisms. It might be surprising then when I suggest the benefits of taking apart your sentences.

Here’s what you do:

Step One: Take a writing sample of your work. I recommend one or two pages. Or, if this is just about fun, a paragraph. It is more enlightening the more you do, but it is also very time consuming. Note if this sample is something you’ve edited before.

Step Two: Put the sample into a new document. Enter each sentence on a line by itself. For example:

Zombies broke into Kara and Charles’ house.
They smashed down the door and carried out the television, the VCR, the stereo system.
They flung clothing across the yard.
A zombie ripped apart Kara’s favorite bra.
Another wore Charles’ corduroy pants.
“My pants,” said Charles.
He frowned and looked at his pants.
There were dirt stains near the ankles.
“Listen, maybe if you honk the horn longer.
Press on it for a long time.”
He reached across the seat and held down the horn.
Kara’s father didn’t like Charles.
He called him effeminate.
Charles was a computer programmer.
He programmed pop-up advertisements for the Internet.
He had programmed more than one thousand.
Whenever Kara was on the Internet and an advertisement popped up, Charles told her which ones were his.
“I made that one,” he said.
“I made that one and that one and that one and that one.”

(This writing sample was graciously stolen off the internet. I’m not taking credit for this one.)

Step Three: Notice the variation of length. Are your sentences all different sizes? Are they very similar sizes? You may have judgments already as to if this a good or bad thing, but it isn’t important to evaluate yet. Just take notice.

Step Four: Find the parts of speech.

This is the hard part, especially if you’re not sure what the parts of speech are. Don’t worry; it’s actually easier than it looks, partially because this exercise isn't science.

PARTS OF SPEECH (On a Need-to-Know basis):

Noun-Place or thing: Desk, dog, person, girl, Russia, etc.

Pronoun-Person: He, she, they, it, Steve, Sandra, etc.
(For this project, I separate “pronouns” from “nouns.” Not necessarily accurately, but it is more useful this way.)

Verb-It’s what you do! Walk, run, scream, feel, was, is, be, etc.

Adverb-A description of a verb. It’s how you do what you do! Quickly, sharply, happily.

Adjective-A description of a noun: Blue, big, ugly, cold.

Preposition-Anything you can do to a cloud: Around, about, in, to, out, back, above, for. (Yes. I'm sure for is one.)

Conjunction-A word that connects words or phrases: but, and, yet, while, when, before, etc.
(When in doubt, it’s probably a conjunction.)

Get a highlighter (use the highlighter/font color tool) and coordinate one color with each part of speech.

Noun, pronoun, verb, adverb, adjective, preposition, conjunction.

(I would make pronouns and nouns a similar color.)

Start with the nouns and go through your sample, highlighting all in that color. Don’t be precious. If you don’t know what it is, guess. Feel free to skip more complicated ones. It only needs to be general. Include “a” and “the” as the noun if you want the whole sentence colored, otherwise ignore them.

Zombies broke into Kara and Charles’ house.
They smashed down the door and carried out the television, the VCR, the stereo system.
They flung clothing across the yard.
A zombie ripped apart Kara’s favorite bra.

Step Three: Notice difficulty.

How hard was this for you to do? If it was fairly easy, then it means you are a clear, accessible, and simple writer. If it was harder, it means that you are creative and poetic. (Or it is a creative/simple section.) Question the desired result. Do you want to be simple and accessible, or creative and poetic? You can aim for a good balance, (in fact, I recommend it), but, are you as complex or clear as you thought you were?

If it was incredibly easy, you may consider if you are being too simple (you may not be making interesting choices.) If it was incredibly hard then it might indicate that your story is incredibly hard to read.

Step Four: Notice patterns.

Now it could be argued, and would be by me, that this particular zombie author in question was going for this style. This sort of Carver-esque simple writing is fairly popular right now. If you notice, he never uses adverbs and always uses the word “said.” All of this is undesirable to me, and this style of writing makes me cringe pretty badly. I do not like it. That being said, this is subjective, and this lack of variation might be just what you’re going for.

Just remember: Don’t lie to yourself.

If you are extra simple and unvaried, extra varied and complex, you will have a hard go of it. Both extremes are stylistic choices people will reject. You have to convince them. Many times writers will call something their style when it is just what they happened to have done. This project tells you how much variation you have in your writing; it’s up to you to decide how much you want.

In the case of the zombie story, you’ll notice some similarities:

Most sentences begin with a pronoun or noun. It has a distinctive pattern throughout: Noun, verb, prepositional phrase, noun. Add in an adjective here and there, an extra noun or conjunction, and that’s pretty much it. The noun, verb, prep style sentence is the default style. It is the most common form of stringing words together. It is easy to understand. It doesn’t look that hard to do, and, often is what people starting out will lean on.

I am not an advocate against adverbs or only using said. That being said, this will tell you if you’re doing a lot of them. Every sentence requires (rather "requires") a noun and a verb, so you should see a lot of red and orange. If you look at it and you catch a lot more of other colors, question the amount of variation you have. The visualization makes it easy to feel out what “too much” is.

One thing about prepositional phrases: While they can be wonderful, when an author has too many it can sound condescending (describing something obvious like paint on the wall), or be exactly why the sentence is confusing. When I had to delete 60,000 words from a manuscript, I got rid of a lot of prepositional phrases. They’re powerful. Use them wisely.

Step Five: Notice repetition.

Read through all your nouns. Read through all your verbs. Adverbs, adjectives, all of it, one at a time. By sitting there and looking at each by themselves, you’re more inclined to notice which words you tend to over use. In the case of McZombie above, he uses primarily the same words each time—again on purpose.

This will lead you to understand what types of words you are choosing. What you do with the knowledge is up to you.

Step Six: Notice interest.

How interesting are your choices? How active are the verbs? How much power is in the nouns?

Your nouns should indicate the desired atmosphere, setting, and tone. If you have daily, typical words, it should be a daily, typical scene. If you have emotional and dark words, it should be an emotional dark scene. This is a good way to test tension and to look for “buzz” words (Words that feel like they would have an emotional response more than they actually do).

Consider this: Zombies, Kara, Charles, house. They, door, television, VCR, stereo system. Clothing, yard. Zombie, Kara’s, bra. Another, Charles, pants. Pants, Charles. He, pants. Dirt stains, ankles. You, horn. It, time. He, seat, horn. Kara’s, father, Charles. He, him. Charles, computer programmer. He, pop-up advertisements, Internet. He, one thousand. Kara, Internet, advertisement, Charles, her, ones, his. One, he. I, one, one, one, one.

Versus: Question. Mind, slings, arrows, fortune, arms, sea, sleep, we, heart-ache, shocks, flesh, heir,  consummation.

Both give a clear mood. The zombie author was—and I think he did this well, though it was a poor choice—going for a casual tone to contrast with the horrible events. The second writer set a scene without even considering verbs, adjectives, or adverbs. Their negativity, darkness, and maybe even depression is obvious.

This is Hamlet, by the way, as I’m sure many have guessed.

“Quality” of the word choice here depends on the goal result. By doing this exercise, it becomes more obvious if the desired atmosphere was successful. It is rare for the nouns not to imply a tone, but it is common for them to imply an undesired one. If there is an inconstancy, look for words with the connotation of the mood. (Cat, feline, animal, furball, are all different views on the same creature, each useful in different situations.)

Do the words, on their own, generally have the impact and tone desired?

Step Seven: Notice fragments.

Sentence fragments can be great. They express real speech, they add comic timing; I use them, and I recommend being open to them.

That being said, sentence fragments without a purpose are just mistakes.

As I claimed, all sentences are expected to have a noun and a verb. A sentence fragment will be missing one or the other.

Step Seven: Take apart your heroes.

Here is an example of Raymond Carver’s work, the bastard who is most quoted as starting this whole “simple” nonsense:
This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.
His wife had died.
So he was visiting the dead wife’s relatives in Connecticut.
He called my wife from his in-law’s.
Arrangements were made.
He would come by train, a five-hour trip, and my wife would meet him at the station.
She hadn’t seen him since she worked for him one summer in Seattle ten years ago.
But she and the blind man had kept in touch.

And the zombie paragraph again:

Zombies broke into Kara and Charles’ house.
They smashed down the door and carried out the television, the VCR, the stereo system.
They flung clothing across the yard.
A zombie ripped apart Kara’s favorite bra.
Another wore Charles’ corduroy pants.
My pants,” said Charles.
He frowned and looked at his pants.
There were dirt stains near the ankles.
Listen, maybe if you honk the horn longer.
Press on it for a long time.”

(Notice that I skipped over some of the harder words. I’ve also guessed on some, broke the rules on others. If you’re a stickler, you can look up parts of speech. It would make you more knowledgeable. But, for the sake of this exercise, it doesn’t matter so much. Unless you’re using these words a lot.)

These stories are not the same. Both are simple, both lack adverbs, both repeat nouns over and over and over again, but Carver’s has more diversity. There are some fairly long sentences and fairly short sentences, the long ones not just a list. (One of the points of the zombie story was to write a very long sentence, which he does later on by, of course, a list.)

Carver is simple, but there is a good deal of variation. There is also a great deal of rule breaking, being that many of the sentences weren’t technically proper sentences.  Carver’s was much more difficult for me to parse out, whereas McZombie’s wasn’t.

Now, considering how much I claim that the importance of variation is subjective and up to the individual (and McZombie might not suck to other McZombie types), the benefit of taking apart the “greats” is that you will identify what people you love are actually doing and how you diverge from them (in terms of word-choice.) If you take apart writing that you think is horrible, it may identify why you think it’s horrible, therefore illuminating what you care about.

Understand how people who you think write well actually write. You are, by no means, limited to that, but by taking apart Carver, we come to a clearer understanding why he might be successful and McZombie needs his brains eaten.