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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Sin and Syntax - how to craft wickedly effective prose (cont)

This week I'm sharing some bits with you from one of my favorite writing books: Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale.

Today I'm going to share with you the chapter on Verbs.

The Bones: According to Hale, "Verbs add drama to a random grouping of other words, producing an event, a happening, an exciting moment." (Don't you just love that? This is why this book was so much fun to read!) There are two major classes of verbs: Static and Dynamic. All those to be verbs are static and generally speaking, we should avoid them because...well, they generally don't produce anything exciting or eventful.

The Flesh: Hale says your choice of verb determines whether you're a wuss or a wiz. Beginners often rely on is and other static verbs, and even those of us who have been at it a while will discover upon revising that our entire first draft is riddled with passivity. Want to pick up the pace and liven up your prose? Use dynamic verbs like saunter, mount, shimmer, glower, hop, poke, punch, lurch...and get rid of as many to be verbs as possible.

Cardinal Sins: Hale cites "that bad, bad being" as one the cardinal sins, because most of the time it's used in error, and the rest of the time is probably not needed. An unfortunate example of this sin is this sentence: "It is a machine which I, being one of the few can operate." Can we say cumbersome?

Carnal Pleasures: As an example, Hale offers the reader the "imperative" which "lets the writer address the reader directly and powerfully." Here's a snippet from "Girl" written by Jamaica Kincaid in which she uses this literary device to perfection, with one gallactically long run-on sentence filled with commands (oh, it's waaay longer than this; I cut a lot for the sake of brevity though it truly is worth reading):

"'Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don't walk bareheaded in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil; soak your little cloths right after you take them off...this is how to love a man, and if this doesn't work there are other ways, and if they don't work don't feel too bad about giving up...'"

Not many writers can do this but boy, Jamaica Kincaid sure can!

Do you find yourself using a lot of to be verbs? I used to, but I'm getting better :)