Writing with Nimble Variation



Writing is much like anything else involving enjoyment: too much of one thing can eventually spoil the fun. Just as they might tire from eating the same cereal every morning, readers can soon grow weary from an over-repetition of compositional forms.

Consider the following sentence:

     Winthrop grew up in poverty. He could not say how a full stomach felt. He always wore the same clothes. He did his work at night by candlelight. He could not be sure of the future. An inner voice urged him on. His life would mean a lot. The world didn’t know yet.

This passage conveys information that gives us an idea of the subject, which we could interpret as a man’s rags-to-riches destiny. At the same time, by the end of the text, the succession of simple sentences is making the tale choppy for many of us. (Several long and winding sentences in a row can likewise result in tedium.)

Even if the long or short sentences being written are good ones, they will quickly become boring if not shaped into different patterns for pleasing variation.

We’ve discussed that the art of composition involves writing for rhythm and sound as well as with restraint. Diversifying our sentence lengths and structures matters just as much to eloquent style.

In particular, whether writing long or short sentences, many writers may find themselves starting too often with the subject, by far the most common approach to a sentence. We can avoid this redundancy by applying patterns such as the following:

Subject-Verb: Winthrop grew up in poverty.
Variation: In poverty, Winthrop grew up. (Start with the prepositional phrase.)

Subject-Verb-Object: He could not say how a full stomach felt.
Variation: How a full stomach felt, he could not say. (Start with the object clause beginning with the adverb how.)

Subject-Linking Verb-Complement: He could not be sure of the future.
Variation: Sure of the future he could not be. (Start with the complement phrase.)

We can further modify the patterns by adding adverbs or adverb clauses; prepositional phrases or participial phrases; and conjunctions, including those that begin a sentence when the sentence is properly related to the preceding one.

Examples
He did his work at night by candlelight, plodding patiently as it flickered, clad in the only clothes he owned. (participial phrases)
Although he could not be sure of the future, an inner voice urged him on. (adverb clause)
But the world did not yet know. (conjunction)

With those techniques in mind, let’s revisit the text we started with and apply some of what we’ve considered.

     In poverty Winthrop grew up. How a full stomach felt, he could not say. He did his work at night by candlelight, plodding patiently as it flickered, clad in the only clothes he owned. Although he could not be sure of the future, an inner voice urged him on. His life would mean a lot. But the world did not yet know.

We’ve changed a series of redundantly short subject-verb simple sentences into a more-expressive grouping that mixes structures while balancing lengths. The result is greater style, feeling, and flow.

Through attention and practice, we can continue refining the art of writing that is pleasing and effective by virtue of its variation.

Posted on Tuesday, March 17, 2020, at 11:00 pm

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4 Comments on Writing with Nimble Variation

4 responses to “Writing with Nimble Variation”

  1. Kenneth Gelnick says:

    “How a full stomach felt, he could not say,” almost sounds as if Yoda (from Star Wars) is speaking.

  2. John Bruce Taylor says:

    Questionable: Starting a sentence with a conjunction? Verb conjugation: Loan, loaned, have loaned, lend, lent, have lent?
    I’m in my 80s, and I was taught/learned these items differently. Have writing, grammar rules changed, or am I a pseudo grammarphobe?

    • Numerous authorities find it acceptable to begin a sentence with the conjunction and. For example, the Chicago Manual of Style’s Rule 5.203 says, “There is a widespread belief—one with no historical or grammatical foundation—that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and, but, or so. In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice. Charles Allen Lloyd’s words from 1938 fairly sum up the situation as it stands even today:
      Next to the groundless notion that it is incorrect to end an English sentence with a preposition, perhaps the most widespread of the many false beliefs about the use of our language is the equally groundless notion that it is incorrect to begin one with “but” or “and.” As in the case of the superstition about the prepositional ending, no textbook supports it, but apparently about half of our teachers of English go out of their way to handicap their pupils by inculcating it. One cannot help wondering whether those who teach such a monstrous doctrine ever read any English themselves.”

      Your verb conjugation is fine.

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