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Wisdoms from Other Sources

Posted on Tuesday, March 27, 2012 at 2:13 PM

Two books offer a myriad of advice for writers and editors alike.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Some wisdoms from other sources.

Pointers from Long

Priscilla Long's The Writer's Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life (Wallingford Press) provides a wealth of pointers.

--The Right Word

She covers "Working with Language," for instance:

"The writers of deep and beautiful works spend real time gathering words. They learn the names of weeds and tools and types of roof. They make lists of color words (ruby, scarlet, cranberry, brick). They savor not only the meanings but also the musicality of words. They are hunting neither big words nor pompous words nor Latinate words but mainly words they like. They are not 'improving their vocabulary' or studying for the SAT or the GRE. They are not trying to be fancy or decorative."

Indeed, I say. We need to be in love with words and have the urge to seek the best for every sentence, every passage, every expressed idea. The craft and art of writing begins with the search for the right word in the right place for the right reason in the right context. Be a slacker here, and we are starting with two strikes against us.

--Important Openings

She covers "How to Open," for instance:

"A great opening works like a baked Alaska: The server lights a match and it bursts into flame. It's mesmerizing, and when the flame dies down, you are ready to eat. Open with the most important thing you have to say. Spend your capital -- fast. Open with a swift, well-placed whack."

Indeed, I say. Gain the reader's attention swiftly and compellingly. Make that beginning irresistible. Cause the reader to believe, "I must go on," no matter what else is on the day's agenda.

--Art of Paragraph

She covers "The Art of the Paragraph," for instance:

"No one has read all the world's paragraphs. Whatever the qualities of many paragraphs, there may be other paragraphs with different qualities. Principles commonly taught such as 'a paragraph is about one thing' may not be true of some paragraphs. But, often a paragraph is about one thing, and often the topic sentence says what that thing is."

Indeed, I say. And author Long then identifies types of paragraphs: direct, climactic, turnabout, and "the other one" (one that lacks a topic sentence but contains a controlling idea).

--Four Structures

Elsewhere in the book, Long discusses visuality of language, sentences, punctuation, metaphors and similes, transitions, and revisions.

But a standout in The Writer's Portable Mentor is an illuminating section on structure. Long identifies and develops four structures: theme, collage, two or three-strand or braid, and dramatic story. Trust me, she teaches you each process step by step, with examples, just as she does with everything she touches upon in the book. Her approach is thorough.

Engaging Advice from Casagrande

June Casagrande's It was the best of sentences, it was the worst of sentences: a writer's guide to crafting killer sentences (Ten Speed Press) spends more than 200 pages on that particular "how to."

Sounds boring? Sounds mundane? Sounds overdone?

I say "no" to all the above. Casagrande has written an engaging guide that not only bulges with interesting examples but deals comprehensively and intriguingly with how we can better construct what she says is the "writer's most important tool."

--Sentence Lessons

Close to up front, she says: "If you want to master the art of the sentence, you must first accept a somewhat unpleasant truth -- something a lot of writers would rather deny: The Reader is king. You are his servant. You serve the Reader information. You serve the Reader entertainment. You serve the Reader details of your company's recent merger or details of your experiences in drug rehab."

What follows is a brilliant analysis of how good sentences are formed: how nouns and verbs work within them, and adjectives and adverbs, and conjunctions and articles. The simple sentence gets its due; so do the compound and complex; so does the fragment. Phrases and clauses are distinguished, one from the other.

On length, Casagrande admits, "Personally, I have a strong bias in favor of short sentences." But she disagrees with those who "will tell you that the longer sentence is always the lesser sentence." It's a matter of depends, including how masterfully the writer has shaped that longer sentence, how well the fat has been trimmed, how firm a grasp the writer has of its structure. Grasp is tremendously important, she argues. With it, "you'll start to see sentences almost like Lego structures made up of modular, movable, interlocking pieces. This will do great things for your writing."

The author often brings humor to her instruction, such as with examples of misplaced modifiers: "Antique desk suitable for lady with thick legs and large drawers" and "I photographed an elephant in my pajamas."

Samplings are generous for every lesson, and wherever it serves, she will take the reader, methodically, from a sentence that doesn't work to an altered one that does. In the process, she encourages experimentation. She shows how elements of a sentence can be moved around and, thereby, she shows how flexible our language, its usage and rules, can be.

Winding up this helpful book are lessons in grammar and punctuation, plus an appendix featuring mistakes we tend most often to make.

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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