The late Christopher Hitchens was a devastatingly brilliant man of letters who wrote widely, and fiercely, on myriad topics, becoming more widely known in recent years as one of the “New Atheists,” along with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, for his no-holds-barred attacks on religion, even claiming that religion “poisons everything.”
I recently picked up his last book, Mortality (Twelve, 2012), which was published posthumously after his death in 2011. I did this not because I wanted to read his thoughts on death – there aren’t many for a virulent atheist like him – but because he was a great writer. Hitchens was also a gifted speaker and debater, always ready to employ his voice in debate and lively conversation. This writing advice he offers combines these two things, voice and writing, as he so impressively did throughout his life:
“To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: ‘How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?’ That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition out loud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better into. If something is worth hearing or listening to it’s very probably worth reading. So, above all: Find your own voice” (50).
So whether you want to become a professional writer or simply write better and more effective e-mails, have you ever thought much about developing your “voice”? And how often do you have others read your work, not to mention reading it yourself?
In his excellent book on leadership The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership That Matters (Bethany House, 2012), President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Al Mohler urges leaders to embrace the digital world and social media to further their message and join the cultural conversation.
As an enthusiastic Twitter user (I once was firmly against getting an account, but boy, are things different now), I was pleased to see how Dr. Mohler uses it as a source of news, as I also do, and I thought he aptly captures the way the medium’s 140-character limit can force you to write more concisely than ever before – a skill that’s important in good writing, whether you use Twitter or not. See what he has to say:
“Twitter is fast becoming the leading edge of social communication. I let Twitter feed my Facebook page, and I work hard to inform my constituencies and Twitter followers day by day. Twitter is now my first source for news. Tweets announce headlines, and I follow the links to the news stories. It is a huge time-saver and alert system.
“A tweet may be limited to 140 characters, but users have brilliantly exploited that platform. The economy of characters is the charm, the most brilliant coercion of conciseness imaginable. If you are not on Twitter, and if you are not working and following it regularly, you are missing a massive leadership opportunity. Twitter, used wisely, can drive enormous traffic to your content, your organization, and your convictions. How can you justify leaving all that behind?” (180)
In his helpful book Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (Little, Brown, 2008), Roy Peter Clark offers these “tricks” for writers, though they can be used by anyone who wants to improve their writing. Do you ever do any of these?
- Read to listen to the voice of the writer.
- Read the newspaper in search of underdeveloped story ideas.
- Read online to experience a variety of new storytelling forms.
- Read entire books when they compel you; but also taste bits of books.
- In choosing what to read, be directed less by the advice of others and more by your writing compass.
- Sample – for free – a wide selection of current magazines in bookstores that serve coffee.
- Read on topics outside your discipline, such as architecture, astronomy, economics, and photography.
- Read with a pen nearby. Write in the margins. Talk back to the author. Mark interesting passages. Ask questions of the text.
Today’s first sentences are from Dostoevsky, Orwell, and Elie Wiesel (in order):
“Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a landowner well known in our district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place.” (The Brothers Karamazov)
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (1984)
“They called him Moishe the Beadle, as if his entire life he had never had a surname.” (Night)
Most writers say the first sentence is the most important line in a book. It sets the tone, invites the reader to keep reading or bores him away, and often makes the difference between publication and rejection. As my love of reading, and words in particular, grows, I’ve become more interested in learning what makes a great sentence. This reminds of me of an anecdote in a book about writing sentences where a young, aspiring author meets with a publisher whom he tells he cares about one thing and one thing only: he wants to write great sentences. Not just great books. Great sentences. I love the passion and particularity of that anecdote.
So in this spirit, I’m trying something new here. On Fridays, I’ll post a few first sentences that strike me as excellent – worth examining as much as enjoying. Hence, “First Sentence Friday.” (Now, if you can think of a more fun and catchy name that doesn’t connote the kind of sentences handed by cold, mean judges, do let me know.)
Today’s sentences come from three classic works by the authors above – from early 19th-century England, the American Roaring Twenties, and mid-century Latin America, from the hand of the recently deceased master, Gabriel García Márquez:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Pride and Prejudice,1813)
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” (The Great Gatsby, 1925)
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” (One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1967)
Every couple of months or so I read a book to help me improve my writing, and now I’m reading Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (Little, Brown, 2008). I’ve only read about four or five books on the craft of writing, and this is my favorite (with William Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well close behind; but for a truly fun read on writing “great sentences,” check out Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One). Clark’s guide is entertaining, full of common sense, and rich in practical tips that can take your writing to the next level.
I wanted to share this passage from his chapter showing how sentence length helps set the pace for the reader. He offers this delightfully brilliant example from the book 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost:
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals – sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
“So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music (91).”
NOTE: Did you notice how the first 9 sentences of this passage are all five-word sentences? That’s right. Read it again and enjoy.
As part of my reading program to help improve my writing, I recently started Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose (2001). The book is a fun, instructive guide on using parts of speech to great, and indeed, “wicked”, effect. Hale is clearly having fun, repeatedly showing specimens of good writing, and at the same time proffering common sense advice. Far from snobbishly pedantic, she argues that we must aim to write well, following basic rules of style, but also to write to be understood, communicating in a way that is accessible to the average reader.
I share the below post not in the interest of promoting good writing, but simply because I think this parody of the me-centric college essay is terribly funny, besides being an excellent example of satirical writing. Author Hugh Gallagher wrote this piece, entitled “College Essay Application,” to satirize the “shameless self-promotion often on display in admissions essays.”
I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees, I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row.
I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing, I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook Thirty-Minute Brownies in twenty minutes. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru.
Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single-handedly defended a small village in the Amazon Basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play bluegrass cello, I was scouted by the Mets. I am the subject of numerous documentaries. When I’m bored, I build large suspension bridges in my yard. I enjoy urban hang gliding. On Wednesdays, after school, I repair electrical appliances free of charge.
I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst, and a ruthless bookie.Critics worldwide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear. I don’t perspire. I am a private citizen, yet I receive fan mail. I have been caller number nine and have won the weekend passes. Last summer I toured New Jersey with a traveling centrifugal-force demonstration. I bat .400. My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles. Children trust me.
I can hurl tennis rackets at small moving objects with deadly accuracy. I once read Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, and David Copperfield in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening. I know the exact location of every food item in the supermarket. I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. While on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. The laws of physics do not apply to me.
I balance, I weave, I dodge, I frolic, and my bills are all paid. On weekends, to let off steam, I participate in full contact origami. Years ago I discovered the meaning of life but forgot to write it down. I have made extraordinary four-course meals using only a Mouli and a toaster oven. I breed prizewinning clams. I have won bullfights in San Juan, cliff-diving competitions in Sri Lanka, and spelling bees at the Kremlin. I have played Hamlet, I have performed open-heart surgery, and I have spoken with Elvis.
But I have not yet gone to college.