There are times when you just want to get the words down. Where will all those verbs and adjectives take you? It’s fun to go along for the ride see the places you end up. But just like an athlete must trade off between sprints and marathons, as writers we must take a break from our free-styling and work on our form. That’s when a book like Gary Hoffman’s Writeful becomes an invaluable tool.
I’ve talked about Writeful before and even played around with Hoffman’s railroad rambles and telescoping sentences. I find that each time I finish one of his chapters, I have a greater understanding of how I write, and I cultivate a new enthusiasm to get to the page and try out all those tricks and maneuvers.
Hoffman’s first two chapters are about allowing your words to flow. But – as pointed out in A Visit from the Goon Squad – pauses make rhythm and build momentum.
“The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn’t really over, so you’re relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL.”
― Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad
When the music stops, and we take a breath before the chorus begins, the moment is heavy, weighted with expectation and emotion. What follows gains a heightened sense of importance. It has much more power.
“Being able to flow, smoothing together details and thoughts in a natural way, is no more important than being able to stop this flow, give pause, and emphasize special thoughts lost within,” says Hoffman.
How do you stop that flow, break up your writing and add some rhythm to your words? Hoffman identifies four techniques: short sentences, traditional hieroglyphics, the melted-together-word, and “innocent language.”
Short sentences are a powerful tool. Hoffman describes them as having “the potential to shock.” Use them as a way to highlight content and “surprise or sting the reader.” When used effectively, very short sentences can “give texture and mood to content,” particularly when you’re writing about something fast or describing a tense situation. Think action. Think finality. Think of yourself wielding a sort of writer’s highlighter – each very short sentence can flash a spotlight on everything that came before.
Traditional hieroglyphics, in Hoffman’s words, are simply the colon and semicolon, which he believes “have the dramatic potential for pauses” particularly because they are eye-catching but rarely employed: in part because of confusion over their appropriate usage. Hoffman believes the colon “creates a dramatic pause that boosts the importance” of the material that comes after it. The semi-colon, meanwhile, is most commonly employed in exchange for a conjunction, hooking two words or phrases together instead of the usual “and,” “yet”, or “but.” I’m not a grammarian, and I’ll leave the specifics up to the experts (and my copywriters), but I think Hoffman’s generalizations about these two maligned and long feared punctuation marks is, at the very least, helpful on a basic level. I’ll let you decide how stringently you want to follow his recommendations.
The melted-together-word contains a clue in its name. The idea is to use hyphens to connect words together to communicate an entirely new idea or concept. For example, a message that is “hard to write” is subtly different from a “hard-to-write” message. One explains the action – writing the message – while the other explains the object.
“These made up words, by their uniqueness and heavy load of content, and often by their cleverness, slow sentence flow down and focus attention on their content,” explains Hoffman. “Fresh, original, hyphen-created words are fun and offer opportunities for wit.”
Innocent language, Hoffman’s final tool, is a bit of a chore but can pay off in deep dividends, depending on your ultimate goal. Innocent language adds depth and graphic elements to a simple item: a door, an elephant, a rainstorm. You accomplish this, according to Hoffman, by changing words or phrases into “more graphic, elemental, and truthful terms than the reader expects to find.” For example, a door becomes “ wood slab with hinges”, and elephant becomes “a gray, hulking beast” and a rainstorm transforms into “a coming crash of wind and water.”
The best way to get a handle on these – somewhat sophisticated – writing tools, is just to dive right in and try them out. Hoffman suggests revisiting the railroad ramble and telescoping sentences exercises and applying these techniques to material created during those exercises. ou may want to follow my lead: I wrote ten short sentences, then expanded those sentences using the railroad ramble. I wrote another paragraph using the telescoping technique and then combined that content into one longer essay. Once that was done, I went back and put in some pauses using very short sentences, colons and semicolons, melted-together-words and innocent language.
Tomorrow I’ll post my finished product.