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Reading to Improve Your Writing

Posted on Monday, September 30, 2013 at 11:19 AM

Two suggested reading titles for your learning enjoyment.

By Peter P. Jacobi

I love these books, two of them:

Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, by Roy Peter Clark (Little, Brown), and

Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing, by Constance Hale (Norton).

Writing Tools: Remember and Practice

Writing Tools actually was published in 2006, but I just came upon it and want to bring the book to your attention, in case you haven't learned of it before. Vex, Hex has just recently come out, and I hasten to let you know about its availability.

Roy Peter Clark is the highly respected senior scholar at the Poynter Institute. He's a great teacher and prolific writer who has given of his talents generously in classrooms and in print. He does so again in Writing Tools.

Here, indeed, are 50 short (and advice-packed) chapters covering matters such as "Begin sentences with subjects and verbs," "Watch those adverbs," "Establish a pattern, then give it a twist," "Prefer the simple over the technical," "Seek original images," "Know when to back off and when to show off," "Build your work around a key question," "Write from different cinematic angles," and "Learn from your critics."

The angles and issues covered are many and seem just about all-inclusive. And there's a structure to the whole. Clark has divided the coverage into four sections: "Nuts and Bolts," meaning from the basics to the development of voice; "Special Effects," dealing with refinements in the use of language; "Blueprints," which gets into content, structure, and usable techniques; and "Useful Habits," offering hints that might get you over humps and bumps.

To give you a notion of Clark's approach and tone in a book lavish in examples, here's the opening paragraph of a "tool" titled "Cut big, then small." "When writers fall in love with their words," he explains, "it is a good feeling that can lead to a bad effect. When we fall in love with all our quotes, characters, anecdotes, and metaphors, we cannot bear to kill any of them. But kill we must. In 1914, British author Arthur Quiller-Couch wrote it bluntly: 'Murder your darlings.'"

Clark follows with: "Such ruthlessness is best applied at the end of the process, when creativity can be moderated by coldhearted judgment. A fierce discipline must make every word count." He then cuts to the quick, offering specific advice on how to do what he's advised you to do: get rid of passages that don't support your article's focus; throw away your weakest material to "give greater power to the strongest;" do your own cutting rather than leaving it to others since "you know your work better;" and so forth.

The author knows how to fashion arguments so they stick with you. While discussing punctuation, for instance, he says: "If a period is a stop sign, then what kind of traffic flow is created by other marks? The comma is a speed bump; the semicolon is what a driver' education teacher calls a 'rolling stop'; the parenthetical expression is a detour; the colon is a flashing yellow light that announces something important up ahead; the dash is a tree branch in the road."

I consider Writing Tools a short reminder course on what we, as writers and editors, need to remember and practice.

Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, Let Verbs Power Your Writing: Artful Verb Usage

Constance Hale, a San Francisco–based writer and teacher who previously authored the helpful Sin and Syntax, somehow has managed to compose some 300 pages on how to make verb usage more artful. Not only that, but she has added useful appendices, including one that delves into singulars and plurals, a sometimes complicated issue when it comes to collective nouns, compound subjects, and Latin words like agenda and bacteria.

Up front, Hale argues: "Knowing the differences between a paltry verb and a potent one, a static sentence and a sinuous one, the passive voice and the active one, is not about turning yourself into a grammatical know-it-all. It's about becoming a better writer. It's about digging for a deeper understanding -- not just of English but of language. It's about perking up your prose, spinning supple sentences, and learning to control the mysteries of pacing and suspense."

She uses the words in her book title as structure in each of her chapters, which range from "I Came, I Saw, I Conquered: The Dynamics of Verbs" to "Passive Restraint: Understanding the Voice of Verbs," and from "Predicate Etiquette: Making the Back End of a Sentence Behave" to "Headache Verbs: Odd Usages and Other Sources of Confusion."

"The Vex section of each chapter," she explains, "will take on the things that are oh so confusing about language, syntax, and verbs." The Hex section puts "a pox on false language pronouncements we've heard over and over ('Don't split infinitives.' 'Ain't is vulgar.')." "In Smash, we will look at the goofs of writers famous and infamous, hapless and clueless." Smooch showcases "writing that is so good you'll want to kiss its creator. These passages feature juicy words, sentences that rock, and subjects that startle."

As does Clark, Hale loads her book with great examples, some familiar, many not, but all adding to the pleasure of learning. In her chapter, "Grammar Wars: The Tension between Chaos and Control," she offers a poem by Kenneth Koch called "Permanently." Here's the first stanza:

"One day the Nouns were clustered in the street.

An Adjective walked by, with her dark beauty.

The Nouns were struck, moved, changed.

The next day a Verb drove up, and created the Sentence."

In the Smooch section for "Verbal Dexterity: Playing with Participles and Other Cross-Dressers," Hale uses a paragraph from Toni Morrison's Sula to show how participles can paint a picture:

"Then summer came. A summer limp with the weight of blossomed things. Heavy sunflowers weeping over fences; iris curling and browning the edges far away from their purple hearts; ears of corn letting their auburn hair wind down to their stalks. And the boys. The beautiful, beautiful boys who dotted the landscape like jewels, split the air with their shouts in the field, and thickened the river with their shining wet backs. Even their footsteps left a smell of smoke behind."

Fun in learning is always welcome.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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