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The Practice of Great Writing

Great writing is about "just the right word"Great writing is something anyone can do—fiction or non-fiction, short story or novel, essay or dissertation—but the question is “How do you make the writing on your current work-in-progress better than it was for the last one?

There are, of course, several techniques that masterful writers practice—those techniques are what our site is about—but one of the best is called “Imitation of the Masters” — literally an ages-old, proven method for writers wanting to improve their skills. (A complete discussion on the art and value of imitating the masters will be posted in January 2013 on my blog. Subscribe HERE to receive notice of my blog posts in your email.)

Imitation is quite simple. You’re imitating the structure of the sentence, not the words.

For example:

If I gave you the following sentence and asked you to imitate its structure, you’d have no problems:

  • The cat ran.

could become…

  • The dog jumped. 
  • The tree broke.
  • The house burned.
  • The man shouted.

Basically, subject + verb

Try this one:

  • The cat ran up the tree.

could become…

  • The dog jumped over the fence.
  • The tree broke during  the flood.
  • The house burned in an hour.
  • The man shouted over the thunder.

(Basically, subject + verb + prepositional phrase, though I want you to note that you don’t have to be a grammar maven to imitate a sentence.)

It is the structure of the sentence that we’re imitating, not the words themselves.

Simple enough.

To improve your own work, to write with a greater rhythm and cadence, you must put your hands on sentence structures from the great writers. Not all sentences are complex, but oh, the music!

Note: The first few times you do this exercise, it requires patience—as well as a few cross-outs and restarts. But persevere: it’s worth it!   This is also one of those exercises where the explanation (below) is worse than the exercise itself.

I have included two sample passages below: the first passage is from Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave; the second, from Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear.

To better illustrate the process, I have included photos of my notes. (Please excuse the arthritic handwriting.) Just take each step slowly and deliberately, and it’ll be clear how the Imitation of the Masters process works.

 

Sample Imitation #1

“South Wales is a lovely country, with green hills and deep valleys, flat water-meadows yellow with flowers where cattle grow sleek, oak forests full of deer, and the high blue uplands where the cuckoo shouts in springtime, but where, come winter, the wolves run, and I have seen lightning even with the snow.”

(Mary Stewart, The Crystal Cave, pg. 23)

This is a highly poetic passage that describes a landscape. The challenge is to feel the sentence structure (syntax) and use it, but with a different topic.

Photos of My Notes:

Step 1: Handwrite the passage on a pad of paper. I use notation paper, which gives me a broad left margin to write out the passage. (Typing it out does not give you the same sense of the passage as handwriting it. Trust me. You need to handwrite it.)

 

Hand copy the sentence

Step 1: Hand copy the sentence

 

 

Step 2: Rewrite the sentence, breaking it into logical phrases and clauses, leaving double or triple spacing. I call this “breathing chunks,” because we often take a pause or breath at a point where the sentence makes a slight change in syntax.

Divide the sentence into "breathing chunks"

Step 2: Recopy into “breathing chunks”

Note: See how I indented phrases, to show that some phrases, such as “where cattle grow sleek” belongs to the phrase “flat water-meadows,” or “in springtime” belongs to “where the cuckoo shouts,” (which itself belongs to “high, blue uplands.”

 

Step 3:  Circle the prepositions, and underline all that goes with the preposition. (See green highlighting below, though you might notice I didn’t do EVERY prepositional phrase. I use the highlighting to help my eye see the relationships between phrases.)

Step 3: Circle prepositions; highlight rest of prepositional phrases

Note: see how the preposition “with” has more than one phrase associated with it?

 

Step 4:  Using a different color highlighter, underline clauses. (See yellow highlighting below.)

Highlight Clauses

Step 4: Highlight Clauses

Note: Notice how each of the clauses begins with the word “where,” which sets up a parallel structure that creates a fabulous rhythm? This is where the music of this passage is found.

 

Step 5:  Again, using a different colored highlighter, underline repeated or similar words. (See the orange highlighting below.)

Underline Reptition

Step 5: Underline Repetition / Similar words

 

Step 6:  Again, using yet another colored highlighter, circle conjunctions, such as “for,” “and,” “nor,” “but,” “or,” “yet,” and “so” (FANBOYS).  (Check out the pink highlighting below.)

Highlight/circle conjunctions

Step 6: Highlight or circle conjunctions (FANBOYS)

 

Step 7: Decide upon a topic. (No photo of this step needed.)

You can use any topic, but the best topics come from your work-in-progress. Even if you don’t use the imitation in your polished manuscript, putting your work into a different sentence form is the swiftest way to see possibilities for sound, rhythm, and music (in writing).

My choice of topic needed to include a list of four things (see green underlining, Step 3). For this imitation, let’s keep it simple: another landscape, but in the city.

How about Siena, Italy?

Step 8: Start with subjects and verbs

Great Writing

Step 8: Start with subjects and verbs

 

Step 9: Fill in prepositional phrases, taking care to watch how the arrows interact with the text.

Beautiful Passage from Literature, imitated

Step 9: Complete the imitation (red underlining)

 

South Wales is described in four parts:

  1. green hills and deep valleys;
  2. flat water-meadows;
  3. oak forest; and,
  4. the high blue uplands.

This means that my cityscape needed four parts:

  1. mortared flagstones and private gardens;
  2. wards proud-flagged;
  3. small shops; and,
  4. thin, spired churches.

Also note that each of the four parts required adjectives:

  1. green hills and deep valleys;
  2. flat water-meadows;
  3. oak forest; and,
  4. the high blue uplands.

This means that my cityscape needed four adjectives:

  1. mortared flagstones and private gardens;
  2. wards proud-flagged;
  3. small shops; and,
  4. thin, spired churches.

What I particularly love about Mary Stewart’s passage is the contrast between springtime and winter, and even the alliteration with “winter” and “wolves” (both start with “w”).

Compare the original with my imitation: 

South Wales is a lovely country, with green hills and deep valleys, flat water-meadows yellow with flowers where cattle grow sleek, oak forests full of deer, and the high blue uplands where the cuckoo shouts in springtime, but where, come winter, the wolves run, and I have seen lightning even with the snow.


Siena, Italy is an ancient city, with mortared flagstones and private gardens, wards proud-flagged bright with colors where horses race, small shops filled with panforte, and thin, spired churches where bells toll for matins, but where come evening, the faithful play, and I have walked alone even in the night.

See how the cadence transfers? Amazing music happens when we put our hands on beautiful passages from literature.

 

Sample Imitation #2

Yes, this one is harder, but again, well worth the time to examine it. The reason this one is more difficult is that Rothfuss’s structure is so intimately entwined with the subject matter, it’s hard to use this structure for a different topic.  Let’s see how it goes.

So yes. It had flaws, but what does that matter when it comes to matters of the heart? We love what we love. Reason does not enter into it. In many ways, unwise love is the truest love. Anyone can love a thing because.  That’s as easy as putting a penny in your pocket. But to love something despite. To know the flaws and love them, too. That is rare and pure and perfect.

(Patrick Rothfuss, The Wise Man’s Fear, pg. 53).

Step 1: Hand copy the passage

Step 1: Hand copy the passage

Step 2: Re-copy into “breathing chunks”

Step 2: Re-copy passage into “breathing chunks”

Step 3: Circle prepositions; highlight rest of prepositional phrase

Step 3: Circle prepositions; highlight rest of prepositional phrases

Note: Compare Rothfuss’s passage to Mary Stewart’s, and you’ll see there is a huge difference in the number of prepositional phrases. Stewart’s “music” comes from using many more, while Rothfuss’s “music” comes from repetition of select words.  Fun stuff!

 

(Next two photos):

Step 4: Highlight clauses (yellow);

Step 5: Underline repetition / similar words (pink); Step 6: Highlight or circle conjunctions (FANBOYS) (blue)

Step 4: Highlight clauses (yellow)

Step 5: Underline repetition (pink); Step 6: Circle conjunctions (blue)

 

Step 7: Choose a topic (no photo)

Here is where it took me some time, because as I said above, Rothfuss’s structure is so intimately entwined with the subject matter, that it’s difficult — not impossible, but difficult — to come up with a different topic.

I originally chose — forgive me here — idiots, but changed it to the “uninformed.”  I then started with the subjects and verbs, then moved to the clauses and prepositional phrases. Sometimes, an idea would come clear with the preposition phrase, and I’d return and update the clauses.  The challenge was to keep the repetition the same. Wherever Rothfuss put “love,” I put “fear.” Where he put “flaws,” I put “the uninformed.”

The result?

Here’s Patrick Rothfuss’s original passage:

So yes. It had flaws, but what does that matter when it comes to matters of the heart? We love what we love. Reason does not enter into it. In many ways, unwise love is the truest love. Anyone can love a thing because.  That’s as easy as putting a penny in your pocket. But to love something despite. To know the flaws and love them, too. That is rare and pure and perfect.

And here’s mine for comparison:

 And so. There are the uninformed, but how can that be where education is given to all of its citizens? We fear what we fear. We will fear an idea because.  That’s as silly as bleeding a patient into a coma. But to fear an idea despite. To acknowledge the uninformed, and understand them, also. That is compassionate and human and holy.

Not great, but not bad, either. I ended up keeping the because / despite angle. It’s too much a part of the structure to substitute anything else.

Before I close this discussion, let me say that not only have I encountered more than my fair share of eye-rolling from my students, I have done more than my share, too. However, if my sixth grade students could get the hang of this, so can you.

Now go find one of the passages from “Beautiful Passages from Literature” that really appeals to you, and start your own Practice of Great Writing at Step 1.

Write in JOY!

 

McKenna Donovan