Tag: on writing well

My Favourite Sentence (for now)

Updike’s sentence on page 182 of On Writing Well.

… of all team sports, baseball, with its graceful intermittences of action, its immense and tranquil field sparsely settled with poised men in white, its dispassionate mathematics, seems to me best suited to accommodate, and be ornamented by, a loner.

John Updike, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu

I love this sentence. I love the sound of it and how Updike uses punctuation to balance what would otherwise be a cluttered and breathless sentence. Notice the repetitive s sound. In phonetics, the study of how we make the sounds of speech, this s sound is called a hissing sibilant and here it’s part of a larger literary technique called consonance, the repetition of consonants between words. (Notice also the assonance between baseball and graceful.) We’ll never know for sure how conscious Updike was of these techniques but I’d wager at that point in his career he had a feel for their use and it wasn’t necessary to be conscious of them.

Though I avoid adjectives on the advice of many writers because they’re often used to disguise bad nouns, I think Updike chooses wisely here. I’ve never seen a game of baseball but I imagine, unlike football (or soccer in the states) where the action is constant from start to end, baseball includes many pauses which Updike eloquently describes as “graceful intermittences of action”.

I’ve never been to America but, if I ever do, I think I’ll see a game, and maybe get a vegan hot dog.

How Do Writers Write?

E.B. White by Jill Krementz.

Writing isn’t just writing. Writing is rewriting; writing is editing; writing is brainstorming and organising; writing is all of these and more. According to writing coach Roy Peter Clarke, writing is a recursive process and every writer has their own process for each step.

In an interview with Conan a few years ago, the novelist George R.R. Martin revealed he writes on a DOS machine with Wordstar 4.0. The software is ancient but he’s wrote all the current books in A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) on it (some two million words) so, despite its age, it works for him.

At one point in his career John McPhee used KEDIT, a text editor, with two extensions, Structur and Alpha, to support and automate his system for structuring his writing. I tried his system for some of my essays and found it to be too much work. But it works for him.

When I wrote screenplays in university I tried the system Vince Gillian used for outlining episodes on Breaking Bad: a Sharpie and index cards. But that didn’t work either. I guess the magic isn’t in the Sharpie but in the person who wields the Sharpie.

In his introduction to the thirtieth anniversary edition of On Writing Well, William Zinsser says:

“I don’t know what still newer marvels will make writing twice as easy in the next 30 years. But I do know they won’t make writing twice as good. That will still require plain old hard thinking […] and the plain old tools of the English language.”