Do you write in the classical style?

Do you write as if you are talking to someone, not preaching, not teaching, not arguing, but rather having a conversation?

Do you treat that someone as if he or she is your equal, except that you have knowledge which your friend lacks?  For example, do you write much like Elizabeth Bennett speaks to her sister, Jane, in Pride and Prejudice?

Do you simplify difficult concepts by making comparisons to everyday concepts, much like a teacher lining up a flashlight, an apple and a grape to explain an eclipse to children?

Is your meaning clear during the first read without a need to reread?

Do you let facts do the persuading, much like the charges against King George III did in the Declaration of Independence?

Is all the work of your writing hidden so that only the finished product shows, much like the elegant dinners at Downton Abby?

Do you exploit the natural structure of English sentences and paragraphs, putting the stress on the last word or phrase, much like Robert Frost in his poem, “The Road Not Taken.”

Are the facts which you present verifiable, much like a scientific experiment which can be replicated to achieve the same result, or like spectators who can be interviewed about what they saw and heard?

Do you use the perfect word or analogy, believing that with a bit of work you can find it?

Is your writing unpredictable, delighting with clever insights?

Is the structure of your writing inconspicuous, allowing the truth of your ideas to shine, much like the stitching of a beautiful garment?

Classical style is one of many writing styles (romantic, oratorical, and practical, among others).  Its roots date to ancient Greece and to 17th century France.  It has influenced American writers like Thomas Jefferson and Mark Twain but has not dominated English writing the way it has dominated French writing.

If you want to know more abut the classic style, read Clear and Simple as the truth by F. Thomas and M. Turner, Princeton University Press, 1994.  Most interesting is a section called “The Museum” which quotes varied sources to show what classical style is and is not.

Transferring what the writer knows into the mind of the reader

One of the hardest skills to teach child writers is to give enough information to make the reader know what the writer knows.  Young children expect their readers to know what they mean.  “Well, everybody knows he’s my brother.  I don’t need to say that.”

I was having a conversation with a fifth grader who was writing a first draft about golf clubs and was considering what to say about loft.

“Don’t the woods have more loft?” I asked.  “They hit the ball the farthest.”

“No, shorter clubs have more loft because the face tips back.  The more it tips back, the more loft it has.”

“Maybe you should explain that.”

“Why? All golfers know that.”

“Yes, but I’m not a golfer and I’m going to be reading your essay.”

Some parents think students should write their essays alone, and that I should become involved later, during revising, not while students are writing a first draft.

But sometimes the most important work I can do as a writing tutor, is to make the student consider what his audience knows and doesn’t know, to put the student in the shoes of the reader.  I told the student above that if I were Rory McIlroy reading his essay, he wouldn’t need to explain loft because Rory McIlroy knows all about loft.  (He was impressed that I knew who Rory McIlroy was.)  But since I have played only miniature golf, I told my student, I don’t know about loft.

Because of this “gap” between what the student knows and what the student writes, I find it useful to sit next to a student when he or she writes the first draft.  I let the student write a few sentences, and then we discuss them—sometimes for grammar or tone, but often for knowledge the student is not sharing but which the reader needs to know to understand the essay.

Discussing the “gap” while the student is writing allows the student to fix it in the early stages of writing, rather than finishing a draft and then needing to make big changes later on.  Clarifying information during the composing process saves time and effort later.

As the old proverb says, “A stitch in time saves nine.”


How to speed up or slow down meaning

Which sentence is easier to understand?

  • Before I went to the movies, I ate dinner.
  • After I ate dinner, I went to the movies.

Each sentence has the same number of words, nine.  Each sentence uses common one- and two-syllable words.  Each sentence starts with a dependent clause.

Yet the second sentence is easier to grasp than the first.  Why?

The second sentence relates the information in the order in which it happened:  ate dinner first, went to the movies second.

Relating events in chronological order parallels how we experience life.  We eat breakfast first, then lunch, and later dinner.  So it makes sense to mention breakfast before lunch and lunch before dinner.

In the first example, “Before I went to the movies, I ate dinner,” what happened second is mentioned first, and what happened first is mentioned second.  Can we understand this sentence’s meaning?  Yes, but only after a moment’s hesitation while we reconsider what we just read.  That moment’s hesitation slows down the written action.

So what?

So if you are writing about fast moving action or fast thinking, you can enhance the speed which the reader perceives by using sentence structure strategies which enable the reader to understand faster.  Using chronological order is such a strategy.

On the other hand, if you are writing about slow-moving action or confused thinking, you can slow down events even more in the reader’s mind by choosing sentence structures which force the reader to reconsider before moving on.  Writing about actions out of order is such a strategy.

Red, white, and blue around the holidays

Ever notice that when you are writing a series—usually of three—the shortest item goes first, the middle-sized item goes second, and the longest item goes last?

That’s not a coincidence.  It’s good writing.

Thomas Jefferson knew this when he wrote, “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

So did whoever wrote the pledge “to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

Why does this way of saying a series—shortest item to longest item—work?

It has to do with our brains.  It’s easier to keep in mind a short-named item than it is to keep in mind a longer-named item.  (Prince William v. Prince William Arthur Philip Louis Mountbatten-Windsor) If you say a longer item first in a series, our short-term memory can’t easily process it while taking in other items, even if those other items are shorter.

This principle is sometimes called “light before heavy.”

Another way of thinking about this is to put the item you wish to emphasize last.  When an emcee introduces entertainer Taylor Swift, the emcee might say, “the singer, the composer, the winner of nine Grammy awards, Taylor Swift.”

Still another way of thinking about this is to put what is known before what is new information to the reader or listener.  “The Harvard drop-out, the co-founder of Microsoft, the donator of more than 30 billion dollars in grants to make the world a better place” might be a way to introduce Bill Gates.

We are so used to hearing a series listed from shorter to longer or from known to new or from light to heavy that any other way sounds wrong.  It sounds unbalanced to say “the first President of the United States, the general, the farmer, George Washington.”

By the time we are adults, we have learned what sounds right, but for children this is a new concept and must be taught.

Should you write on electronic equipment or by hand?

If you have a choice to compose either on a laptop or a tablet, or to hand write, use electronic equipment.  It has many advantages. 

You can erase and rewrite easily. Even if you are lazy, you will erase and make changes more than if you are handwriting.

You can cut and paste easily, moving sentences around to create better flow. On paper you can do that too, drawing arrows or actually cutting your paper with a scissors and taping it together in a different order, but face it, you probably won’t.

You know immediately if a word is misspelled and with one click, you know how to correct it. No paging through a dictionary.

You know immediately if you have a grammar problem although you might not recognize what the problem is. But at least you know something is wrong.  When you write on paper, you don’t know you made a mistake.

You can read what you are writing. If your handwriting is poor, or if you forget to skip lines, reading handwritten drafts is difficult.

With electronic equipment you are more likely to revise because you can see what you are doing and you don’t create a mes

Once you know how to type or keystroke, writing on electronic equipment goes faster than handwriting does.

Your work looks professional. You can be proud not only of the content but of its appearance.

Your writing will improve.

Finding the right word

When you are reading a rough draft, and you come to a word which seems not quite right to you, or you know there must be a better word but you don’t know what it is, what should you do?

Draw a box around any word which offers an opportunity for improvement and keep reading, says John McPhee, author of Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process.  Later, go back, and one by one, think about each of those words.  He suggests you use a good dictionary, the kind which will not only offer synonyms but which will explain shades of meaning among those synonyms.

McPhee recommends not heading directly to a thesaurus because generally thesauruses list synonyms but do not identify shades of meaning, and it is that nuance that you are probably looking for.  However, he says that if you like using a thesaurus, do that, but then look up your chosen word or phrase in a dictionary too.  He calls thesauruses “rest stops” on the way to the dictionary.

McPhee also warns against choosing a multisyllabic word when a simple word will do.

McPhee is author of close to three dozen nonfiction books and is a former writer for Time and The New Yorker.  He offers advice in Draft No. 4 based on his experience writing for more than 50 years, including how to interview in a way which makes people open up, and how to structure nonfiction so that the structure helps the writer but is invisible to the reader.

Want to write like Hemingway? There’s an app for that

Do you want to write like Ernest Hemingway, using active voice verbs; short, simple sentences; short, one-syllable words; and few adverbs?  There is a free web app to help you.  Here’s how the app works.

Type a passage which you want to be more Hemingway-like. Swipe and copy it.  Go to  Click the “H1,” “H2,” or “H3” button at the top of the app screen to allow you to paste your passage.  Or click the “write” button in the top right corner to compose on the site.

Highlighted in yellow will be sentences which are long or complex or which have common errors. The app identifies them, but it’s up to you to figure out how to fix them.

Highlighted in red will be sentences which are dense, that is, too full of information. Again, it’s up to you to figure out how to fix them.

Highlighted in purple will be words for which a shorter synonym is possible. Synonyms will be suggested by the app.

Highlighted in blue will be adverbs—a sign that your verbs aren’t strong enough to stand alone. The app won’t suggest stronger verbs, but it will identify adverbs, most of which should probably go.

Highlighted in green will be passive voice verbs. You need to figure out how to rewrite the sentence to make the verb active.

In the right margin will be a readability score, that is, the reading grade level of your passage.

The Hemingway app will make your writing more Hemingway-like, but that doesn’t mean your writing will be of high literary merit.  Your writing will be streamlined and easier to read, but that is not the same as “good.”

Still, if your revising skills are poor, or if you are pinched for time, this app can offer suggestions on how to make your writing more readable.  The cost to download a desktop version (3.0) is $19.99, available for both PC’s and Mac’s.