Read well to write well

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Years ago at a writing workshop, I remember the workshop leader saying that we should only read well-written books in order to improve our writing. I did stumble on the word “only” because sometimes when I need to relax with some light reading, I might read a formulaic novel that is OK but not great.

So I will be a little less prescriptive and suggest that you notice excellent writing while you are reading in order to learn from great content.

Since I am an editor and writer, sometimes when I am reading for leisure—either in a magazine, book or newspaper—I will pause and realize, “That is a great sentence!” or “What a beautiful paragraph!”

Of course, I also notice the poor examples and think about how a sentence or paragraph could be clearer, since I don’t turn off my brain when I am off-duty.

Noticing a great sentence.

When I was reading the May 9, 2020 edition of The Economist, I noticed this sentence in an article about breadmaking (cleverly titled “All Rise”).

“There are no atheists in foxholes; there are, apparently, no carbphobes in a lockdown.”

There are several writing principles embedded in this short sentence that make it interesting First, the writer used an analogy to something that the readers of the magazine would understand. The expression about “foxholes” hearkens back to times of war and is an expression that elicits general understanding. Even if someone hasn’t been in a war, they have seen foxholes in movies and can understand the common expression. If your life is under immediate threat, you may be likely to pray and hope in God—hence the phrase “no atheists in foxholes” which is a clear and quick way to make the point.

Secondly, the term “carbphobe” isn’t commonly used, but by cleverly combining the -phobe ending with the suggestion of carbohydrates, the writer alludes to a trend in developed countries of people limiting their bread consumption, thinking that carbohydrates are unhealthy. The article is about how many people have started baking bread during quarantine, so the usage is easily understood. Also, the writer subtly compares the pandemic to a war-time situation by the juxtaposition of phrases.

There is much nuance and implication packed into a short sentence, along with a bit of humor and irony.

Noticing a great paragraph.

In Pam Houston’s memoir, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, she intermingles beautiful descriptions of the landscape, with the hard work of ranching in the winter, and healing from childhood trauma. During a blizzard when she makes her way to the barn to feed her animals, she inserts this description of the landscape:

The wind stills for a moment and whole world is silent as a prayer. In the aftermath of a blizzard, the snow looks more like a painting of snow than snow itself. Everything sculpted and softened by all that power pushing it for hours in one direction. … White on white, a tiny row of fence poles the only distinguishing factor. And then the wind starts howling again.

This paragraph functions as an interlude, giving the reader a sense of the landscape in her story, as she describes the hardships of living on a ranch in the winter. Notice the first and last sentences that form a space for the description: The wind stills for a moment … And then the wind starts howling again. These two sentences perfectly frame the paragraph, giving the reader space to absorb the beauty, which is a contrast to the nearby descriptions of the hardship of digging through the cold and snow for daily chores.

In addition, she uses the language of art to describe the scene: a painting of snow … sculpted and softened … white on white. The reader has only her words, not a picture or painting of the snow, but her rich description provides visual cues and draws the reader into the soft landscape. We can picture the tiny row of fence poles and the cold beauty of the moment.

There is also contrast shown in the momentary quiet and subsequent howling of the wind. In the rest of the chapter, the beauty of the snow is contrasted with the harsh cold and the real danger of injury and freezing alone in the desolate setting.

Whether you are reading as part of your work, or reading for fun, notice great writing. Stop to appreciate the skill of the writer. Why is a particular section of prose is engaging? What can you do to employ these techniques in your own writing?

By Carla Foote, Fine Print Editorial

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