In the spirit of #AcWriMo here is another book that you might find interesting and helpful – this week it’s Verlyn Klinkinborg’s (2012) Several short sentences about writing.
Klinkinborg writes a book-length prose poem about authoring. His goal is to unpick writing myths and orthodox wisdoms – he takes on writing blocks, genius and inspiration, topic sentences and the (non)usefulness of outlines (ouch). While Klinkinborg is not writing for academics, much of what he says is highly relevant to us – but ahem, perhaps outlines are still useful in academic writing where we have to carefully accumulate ‘stuff’ in order to make our argument. But put that gripe aside.
I particularly like what Klinkinborg has to say about revising. You may well be up for revising during #AcWriMo – you have to do something with all the text you’ve generated. Klinkinborg’s advice is pertinent to drafts but also to the kind of brain dump text that you generate during timed writing, if that is your thing.
Klinkinborg offers a middle road between ditching large numbers of words because you think they are all terrible, and holding onto every single word as if they were forged from precious metal. He cautions about being too ruthless, getting rid of things too quickly. He says
“It’s true that the simplest revision is deletion.
But there’s often a fine sentence lurking within a bad sentence,
A better sentence hiding under a good sentence.”
Klinkinborg would have you look at sections of text where there is some kind of good idea going on, but the words aren’t great. He suggests you spend a bit of time working on some sentences and paragraphs to see what is worth preserving.
“Work word by word until you discover it. “
But, he warns, attending to sentences and paragraphs is more than shuffling the words around and around, or doing a bit of cut and paste. As he puts it
“Don’t try to fix an existing sentence with minimal effort,
Without reimagining it,
You can almost never fix a sentence –
Or find the better sentence within it –
Using only the words it already contains.
If they were the right words already, the sentence wouldn’t need fixing. “
Klinkinborg advocates a readiness to alter what is on the page or screen, combined with persistence and imagination. This means you play with the words, trying out new combinations of old and new. Lots of writers don’t get this, he says. They
“… sit staring at a flawed sentence as if it were a Rubik’s cube.,
Trying to shift the same words round and round until they find the solution.”
Klinkinborg is quite insistent about the need for thinking anew about drafty text. You have to be prepared to work at it, he says, to reimagine it.
“Take note of this point: it will save you a lot of frustration.
This applies to paragraphs too.
You may not be able to fix the paragraph using only the sentences it already contains. “
But Mr. K also wants to provide some reassurance to any readers who may be getting very anxious about the possibility of working on a sentence for days on end. That’s we scholarly folk for sure. Writing in pressured and performative times does mean that we generally don’t have time to do the kind of careful sentence by sentence work Klinkinborg argues for. So it’s helpful that he advises,
“Look for improvement where-ever you find it,
And build on every improvement
But don’t look for too much improvement all at once.
Finding a flaw is an improvement. So is discarding an unnecessary word or using a stronger verb.
Writing even one clear, balanced , rhythmic sentence is an accomplishment.
It prepares the way for more good sentences.
It teaches you how you respond, inwardly, to a successful sentence of your own making.”
A Klinkinborg maxim for doing the best you can in the available time and in whatever circumstances you find yourself. Thankyou.
Small writing improvements count. And what you learn from making small changes sets you up for the next revising task.
Great post. I think any blogger or writer would benefit from using the points in this post. It certainly helps my writing to review a piece several times after putting it aside for 24 plus hours.