Dr. Johnson’s Advice

 

Doctor Samuel Johnson ?1772 by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1723-1792Here’s a quick tip from one of eighteenth century England’s greatest writers, Samuel Johnson. A poet, essayist, literary critic, and editor, he compiled and organized  A Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755. This dictionary was used for 150 years before the Oxford English Dictionary’s publication. He said: “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.

Hare or Tortoise–Which One Are You?

 

close up photography of tortoise near leaves
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I have a confession: I’m a tortoise. No, not a literal tortoise, a writer tortoise.  My writing speed is…well…it’s slow.

When I see advertisements about helping writers “write fast,” I often take a pause. Me? Write fast? Well, I have nothing at all against writing at hare speed so long as the writing is well-done. However, I prefer to write slow. For me, writing is akin to eating a half-gallon of ice cream during a four-hour long, Oscar-winning movie. Both take time to enjoy.

I love playing around with words and phrases, taking things out and putting things in till I’m comfortable with how my writing sounds. Sometimes I do catch myself envying those who can write both fast and well, but if I write too fast, I feel that my writing is sloppy. This is just me, though.

close up of rabbit on field
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Every writer is different, I’ve come to realize. Tolkien spent twelve years writing his trilogy, The Lord of the Rings (1937-1949). Other writers, such as Joyce Carol Oates, are super-prolific.

No, it’s not wrong to write fast as a hare,  neither is it wrong to write tortoise speed. Each writer must write at the pace that he or she is most comfortable with. And even though I’m a literary tortoise…Hey!  I’m enjoying the process!

The Writer’s Warehouse

 

man riding on yellow forklift
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When we look at our manuscript’s pages, imagine them as a verbal warehouse. A literal warehouse uses different machines for lifting different types of products. Neat warehouses, like neat writing, are well-organized. Some machines, such as forklifts, can lift heavier items than other machines, such as hand trucks.

The same is true in our English language. Some parts of speech are forklifts, others hand trucks. Our language also has “pasteboard” boxes, as we shall see.

The Forklifts: Nouns, Pronouns and Verbs

These parts of speech, if well-chosen, do the heaviest lifting in a sentence.
More often than not, hand trucks aren’t needed.

The Hand Trucks: Adjectives and Adverbs

Sometimes, though, these verbal hand trucks are needed. When? When concrete nouns and dynamic action verbs alone can’t create a precise image in readers’ minds.

Pasteboard Boxes: Prepositions and Conjunctions

Every warehouse I’ve ever been in has merchandise in boxes, usually pasteboard boxes. These keep the merchandise clean and well-organized. Similarly, verbal “boxes” are necessary to help our sentences flow smoothly and clearly by keeping them well-organized. But do they pack a lot of weight? Most often, they don’t. But we do need them, and when we use them with “forklifts” and “hand trucks,” they help make our sentences the strongest and clearest they can be. Use them carefully, though. Too many in a sentence can also cause clutter.

Examples

1. The horse ran very fast through the field.
2. The thoroughbred galloped through the cotton field.
3. The brown thoroughbred galloped through the cotton field.

Which of the three sentences is the strongest? The third one, because it creates the most visual image in the reader’s mind.

Sentence 1: 

“horse” and “field” – too general. We don’t know what kind of horse, nor do    we know what kind of field the horse ran through.

 “very fast” – also too general. How fast is “very fast”? More often than not,  “very” isn’t needed, so be on the lookout for this adverb.

“through” – this preposition, though lightweight, is needed for clarity. It shows us the direction the horse is running.   

Sentence 2:

“thoroughbred” – a strong concrete noun. Here, we see a specific breed of  horse.                      

“galloped”  — more specific. We can see how fast the horse is running.

 “cotton field” — more specific/concrete. We can also visualize the field.

Sentence 3:

“brown” – an adjective that’s needed. Because thoroughbreds come in several colors, “brown” helps readers visualize the horse even better.  

Coming next week, an interview with Jodie Wolfe. author of To Claim Her Heart, a novel set during the Oklahoma Land Rush. Be sure to visit the Interview page next week to read it.