Monday, September 26, 2011

Precision of Thought for Writing

The genius of the George Orwell novel, 1984, is that in the story the government controlled the people by reducing their vocabulary. The theory was that if the people didn’t have words, then they couldn’t form complex concepts. In essence, they wouldn’t be able to think with any clarity.

As writers, our goal is to write exactly what we want to say in an elegant form—a form that resonates with others. To achieve this goal, we need to use words in a precise manner. This requires disciplined thinking, which requires a healthy vocabulary and practise putting those words into tight, meaningful sentences.

When I write, I often have to ask myself what purpose I want a scene to have. What exactly am I trying to capture? Does a particular sentence say what I mean? Could I say it better?

The elegant part of the equation is about the rhythms and flow of the words, and the very sound they make. A deeper meaning can be understood through this music. For example, short sharp sentences increase tension in a scene.

What are some things you do to clarify your thoughts while writing? Do you think of the rhythms when you write?

Pic: A close up of the Sydney Opera House's amazing architecture

58 comments:

  1. I know I waffle too much with my sentence structure - have been known to write one sentence into whole paragraphs even! LOL!! I guess my method in keeping this under control is practice, practice, practice. And going to writing school and getting my tutor to red pen my offence! LOL!

    I love love love 1984 - oh the ending - the bleakest for me since... oooh... Mill on the Floss!

    Take care
    x

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  2. I don't like short sharp sentences. They sometimes have their purpose as you said, but most usually they are used by bad writers who have zero sentence structure skills. That's usually the first thing which differs a naturally skilled writer from an amateur one.

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  3. I have to write each chapter out first and then work out the flow and rythmn. Each sentence must have intent.

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  4. I pay lots of attention to the way my writing "sounds" or "feels" even if it isn't meant to be read aloud. Although I must admit 1984 is not one of my favorite books. Interesting concept but BORING book. Orwell could use a few of your tips, I think :D

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  5. That Newspeak was working for that government was probably scarier than people watching you back through every TV screen and analyzing your face to know your thoughts. Well, as scary anyway.

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  6. Cadence in writing is extremely important. When I feel uncomfortable with a scene I'm writing, or if I don't like the way it feels, 90% of the time it's because the rhythm is off.
    I think I would disagree with Dezmond though. Complex sentence structures don't necessarily differentiate skilled authors from amateurs. Knowing how to use different structures is key, I'd say.

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  7. Nice photo, Lyn! Ha, Raz's comment--I tend to agree; the concepts of 1984 are profound and far-reaching (Big Brother has become an often-quoted term) but Orwell's writing? Meh. Especially the long pedantic monologues where a character philosophizes as a mouthpiece for the author for pages and pages.

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  8. I will read it out loud to get the cadence. I like this post because regardless of what everyone says about plot and suspense and page-turners, sometimes you just want things written in a way that makes you appreciate the language.

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  9. Great Post, Lynda! Thanks, I'm bookmarking this!

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  10. Yeah, I think this part is key:

    "When I write, I often have to ask myself what purpose I want a scene to have. What exactly am I trying to capture? Does a particular sentence say what I mean? Could I say it better?"

    I need to keep this in mind more as I'm revising!

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  11. And I disagree with a statement above. I used to use longer sentences, both complex and with an overusage of 'and' and 'but.' My critique partners showed me how to create smaller sentences by eliminating those words, thus giving the text a faster pace and more fluid reading.
    And when I think to the writers I admire, like Timothy Zahn, his books contain the same shorter sentences, creating a sense of urgency in the story.

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  12. I've never read 1984, but I think we've all heard about Big Brother.

    Reading out loud helps with the rhythm and pacing, plus good feedback from my critique group.

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  13. Old Kitty, yep, good sentence structure can take a while to master.

    Dezzy, No? You don't like short sentences? A bit staccato? (giggle). But seriously, I know what you mean. When used in the wrong place, they can stand out and jar the reader.

    Shelly, that's a good method.

    Raz, 1984 is a slow book. I had to read it for school so I wasn't a fan back then. I appreciate it more now, though more for the concepts.

    Matt, scarier, I think. It's one thing watching, quite another controlling.

    Bethany, yep, it's all about knowing how to use those sentences.

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  14. Carol, oh yes, I totally agree. I think it became a classic because of the concepts, not because of the writing.

    Karen, yes, yes and yes! That to me is part of the magic in certain books.

    Nas, thanks

    Trisha, often my first drafts are a ramble as I try to sort my thoughts. Thank goodness for revisions!! ;)

    Alex, it's all about balance. Too many short sentences and the writing can sound clipped. If that's what the writer wants, then that's not a problem. A few ands and buts are fine. What makes music wonderful to listen to is it's change in rhythms. Same in writing.

    Lynn, absolutely! Reading out loud is essential in my opinion.

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  15. '... the government controlled the people by reducing their vocabulary. The theory was that if the people didn’t have words, then they couldn’t form complex concepts.'

    Texting, anyone? Twitter?

    This post speaks the very passion of my inmost person, Linda. Thanks.

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  16. Ach. I spelled your name wrong! After all this time! My sincerest apologies. (Eep.)

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  17. The rhythm and flow of sentences is why I love to write and why it takes me so long to do it. :)

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  18. I think 1984 is a must-read for anybody who cares about ideas and language (and freedom.) They say those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it, and I think people who don't read the great dystopian visionaries may be doomed to live the visions. Facebook, especially in its newest incarnation, is starting to get more Big-Brothery than I'm comfortable with.

    "Without language we have no clarity." This is so true. We are pressured to dumb down, but if we don't allow complex thought, we will lose it as a culture. Easy isn't always in our best interest.

    You can have extremely complex thought with short sentences: look at Vonnegut--the master of simple prose conveying the most complex of thoughts.

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  19. Long, sprawling sentences are what I do more often than not. One thing I've needed to tweak about my writing is putting in much shorter sentences.

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  20. Suze, I think part of the popularity of Twitter is that it's instant and it's brief. Our attention spans have been diminishing every year. Oh, and meh, I don't mind you spelling my name wrong. I'm used to it. You need to get more creative with it though. I could be Lindar, or Lidia, or Lynski ;)

    Luanne, it does take time, doesn't it.

    Anne, totally agree 1984 is a must read. Regarding dumbing down--it's always about balance. Using 'big words' for the sake of using them is just as bad as not using them at all. I recently read a book that put my vocabulary to shame. I had to look up every 3rd word (or so it felt) but the author's use of language was truly glorious. Every word mattered and it was beautifully balanced. He could achieve amazing atmosphere and imagery because of it.

    Jamie, sometimes a sprawling sentence works.

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  21. I didn't when if i first started writing, but I do now. I love a story that has rhythm and uses that to its advantage.

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  22. I think the rhythms are so important in the novels and you brought out a great way of controlling it: vary sentence size. Also, I like using repeated words or phrases in chapters that bring cohesiveness to it.

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  23. The above mentioned novel reminds me of texting. Since I tend to ramble on with whatever scene pops in my head when I write, I usually do a lot of sentence cutting and compacting when I go back and edit. :)

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  24. I love this! When something's wrong with one of my chapters or sections, often it's lacking in precision. I have a love of saying things twice, so, for me, I'm often deleting every other sentence to form something much tighter, a distillation of whatever I was trying to convey.

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  25. I think my approach to writing is similar to yours. There must be a purpose for a sentence. I've never been much on "fillers."

    1984 was okay. It's not a story I'd revisit, but I'm glad I read it. Great post, lots of food for thought.

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  26. I love the idea of writing requiring clarity of thought. I think sometimes that is missing, even in published work. But when it's there, it sings through the page.

    Great post!

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  27. I use the reading-out-loud method when I reach the editing process in order to clarify my thoughts and get a sense of the rhythm (and whether or not it needs working on).

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  28. I'm not sure really. I tend to get into a groove and just write and the words seem to flow.
    When I'm not in a groove they're stilted and I just assume I'll tie them together better when I get to revisions. So I guess, when I rewrite things is a way to give those sections that really need it a 'clarity of thought'.

    I miss my home country, it's nice to get a dose of it here. Thank you for the picture

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  29. Dear Lynda:

    First, I love the photo of the Sydney Opera House. How perfect for what you are saying about sound and the music of our language.

    I read aloud what I have written and listen to the flow. If it sounds choppy, I reconstruct the sentence, scene, or maybe the character's voice. I like poetry, but I try not to flood my prose.
    ~Victoria Marie Lees

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  30. Writing is as much as what you say as what you don't say I find. It's easy to bombard the reader with too much stuff, so choose just the right amount is crucial. BTW, I luv the Orwell reference. Very much reminds me of Frederick Douglass' narrative when he mentions learning to read. Before he read the word "abolitionist" he had no idea of the concept:)

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  31. Oh man, another great topic.

    Yes, I focus so much of my attention to the rhythm of the words within a sentence. Probably too much. And I do try to shorten my sentences when it comes to action, but still, I love when words roll off the tongue and sound pretty. No matter the action.

    Rhythm is one of my pet peeves. I'm a little obsessive about it.

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  32. I do pay attention to rhythms when I write, but I don't know that I actually sound it out. There is a cadence to language, however, and I do think about it--especially in revisions. Didn't know that about Orwell--interesting~ :o)

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  33. I polish up rhythm later. Try to vary sentence length, make sure I didn't use a word too much. The rhythm and flow and meanings are important. Subtle alterations can make big changes. Great post, Lynda.

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  34. I think of the rhythm when I'm editing; not so much when I'm writing out a draft or working on rewrites, since I'd end up fussing over every detail if I did.

    I love the picture!

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  35. Thinking of the rhythms helps me write! +followed, come check my blog out when you get the chance! http://mightyideas.blogspot.com

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  36. Laura, it's wonderful, isn't it?

    Clarissa, yes, I like to repeat words too for the sound they make.

    Laila, I love editing for that reason :)

    Sarah, haha yes! I do the same until I get it right.

    Andrea, I don't like reading fillers so I try not to keep them in my writing.

    Susan, that's right. It does sing.

    Crystal, it's a good method. I've found reading out loud so helpful.

    K T Hanna, I love it when I find that 'groove' and the words flow.

    Victoria, thanks. And yes, poetry is wonderful but it can bog down prose if the poetry becomes the focus.

    Mark, so, so true.

    Nancy, there is nothing wrong with an obsession with rhythm :)

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  37. Leigh, try sounding it out and see if it makes a difference.

    Mary, From the small amount I've read of your work, I reckon you have rhythm down. :)

    Golden, haha yeah, it can get that way. A short story I recently wrote lacked spark and it took me a while to realise it was because it lacked a certain rhythm.

    Rob, welcome :)

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  38. I don't have much in my mind when writing, but if I can clarify my thoughts I just step away and come back another time.

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  39. I'm pretty good with vocabulary.so I can be economical, depending on who I'm writing for. I've found contractions or lack of them to be a way for me to be choppy. Rhythm? Wouldn't know where to start.

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  40. Rhythm is so important. (That's why I feel compelled to read everything out loud.) Great post, Lynda! :)

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  41. I have to read my work out loud to control rhythm. Yes, short sharp sentences increase tension in a scene. Great writing tips and advice. Thank you.

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  42. Emily, yes, breaks after help to clarify thoughts. As can exercise.

    Curmudgeon, you make a good point about the ability to achieve economy of words.

    Carrie, I love, love, love the music of words. Thanks.

    Joanne, reading out loud is, in my opinion, essential.

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  43. I ask all the same questions you do.

    When I was in tenth grade, I had a teacher tell me that I had too many long sentences in my short story. He told to mix it up - some long, some short, for more impact. I started doing that, and was amazed by how much it changed my writing.

    Looking back now, I see that he was referring to rhythm, though I'm sure if he tried to explain rhythm to me then, I wouldn't have been able to really understand it. But I do now, and I've never forgotten his advice.

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  44. I love short sharp sentences. I try to see if I can improve a scene or a sentence structure. Great post, Lynda.

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  45. A lot of times I'll play the scene out in my head several different ways including dialog.

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  46. Since there is a lot of action in my books, I use shorter sentences during these scenes. I use longer, more fluid sentences with character development. So I use both, depending on the context.

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  47. Yeah, I think I might spend way too much time on the flow and rhythm of my sentences, but it definitely helps shape me as a writer! Great post!

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  48. I find that when I'm having trouble with a scene (or a blog post, for that matter), it's because I don't know exactly what it is I'm trying to say. If I take a step back and figure out exactly what my point is, the words flow so much easier. And reading out loud is the best way I know to improve the flow of the words.

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  49. I like to read snippets aloud in order to hear those rhythms more easily :)

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  50. Jennifer, sounds like you had a great teacher back then.

    Rachna, thanks

    Holly, yes! I do the same thing.

    Stephen, it's all about context.

    Christina, is there such a thing as spending too much time on rhythm and flow? ;)

    Susan, yes, exactly! (Happens a lot when I'm trying to write blog posts)

    Jemi, it still amazes me how well that works.

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  51. This rhythm, music, is something I especially pay attention to in revision, when I read a work aloud. Sometimes a sentence needs one more or one less beat before it sounds right.

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  52. I picture it the clearest I can, and let my imagination flow onto the page… I often let the words come without effort, during revision I focus my original thought to a vivid flash images that hopefully stick with the reader.

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  53. This is exactly what I'm doing right now with my WIP. Questioning each word and each sentence. I love it. There's something powerful about attacking it at the microscopic level. (Er, you know what I mean).

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  54. When I'm revising and editing, I carefully weigh word choice and the length of sentences, scenes, and chapters.

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  55. Definitely. I also try to stay away from repetitions, because they decrease the impact of what I'm saying.

    :-)

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  56. I always keep scrap paper or a notepad beside my computer to help me clarify my thoughts while I'm pecking away at the laptop keys. And I definitely focus on the rhythm of the writing when I am revising.

    I just posted something similar over on my blog! We must be on the same wave length. : )

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  57. Short and long sentences . . . I think there has to be variety, not just one or the other. I have a tendency to write long, rambling sentences that bore before then end. To me, that's not clarity. Clarity is concise, rhythmic, flowing with the beauty of thought-provoking words.
    And I agree with so many others, love the picture, and love 1984. It's a tough, but good book.

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  58. Angelina, yes exactly. It's the beats that bring magic to the words.

    Jeff, I love this method

    Stina, yes! At first it seems like a daunting task, but the satisfaction after getting it right is wonderful

    Medeia, I think that's why editing takes so much longer than the first draft.

    Misha, repetitions are a tricky beast. I do use them, but I have to be careful.

    Cynthia, I'm always jotting down ideas in notebooks.

    Tyrean, I agree. Variety and balance is key.

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I'd love to hear your opinion. Thanks for leaving a comment.