mabfan (Michael A. Burstein) (mabfan) wrote,
mabfan (Michael A. Burstein)

Robert's Rules of Writing #71: Mix It Up

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Although rule #71 might seem to apply to party activities or vacation plans, those are only analogies for what Robert Masello is really talking about: prose. In his accompanying essay, Masello warns writers of the dangers of allowing your writing to take on a repetitive rhythm, and suggests varying both sentence structure and events to keep the prose fresh and exciting. (Or at least that's how I interpret it.)

Sentence structure and rhythm are actually two of those important issues that often get short shrift in books on writing, so it's not a bad idea to discuss them a little more. When I first started out, the idea of varying sentence structure confused me. Although I felt that my underlying story ideas might be exciting, I worried that my sentences were lackluster and pedestrian. I thought my writing style was too simplistic, and I strained to add luster and sparkle to my prose.

I mainly approached this problem by two methods. I tried to improve my vocabulary and I eschewed any form of the verb "to be" that I could. But I soon realized that I could go further if I analyzed my writing "sentence by bloody sentence" (as a friend of mine from the Clarion Workshop once put it). The easiest way to do that was to read my sentences aloud and experience how they felt against the ear, as opposed to the eye.

Let me tell you, it makes a big difference.

In his book on writing, Worlds of Wonder, David Gerrold mentions the concept of "metric prose," which he learned from Theodore Sturgeon. Part of what made Sturgeon a masterful writer was his ability to play with sentence structure, in a way that lured the reader to plow forward through a story. He advised Gerrold to apply the metrics of poetry to his writing, and Gerrold found that to be useful advice. It's actually one of the simplest ways to vary your sentence structure and to mix things up.

For example, if you want the reader to march forward, recast your sentences in iambs (which, for those of you who don't recall, is a two-syllable foot of one unstressed beat followed by a stressed beat). If you want the reader to stop short, consider a one-sentence paragraph for effect. If you want the reader to get lost in a sea of stream of consciousness, work against any sort of consistent rhythm or pattern, and make the paragraphs as long as possible.

It is said that variety is the spice of life. It's also the spice of prose.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein
Tags: roberts-rules, writing-advice

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