Unpacking the Nuts and Bolts of Writing

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One of my core beliefs is that there is nothing that cannot be understood through careful study and thought. I apply it to design and code, but I also think it applies to everything else to which you care to turn your hand. For me, that includes writing, and specifically prose writing.

One of the aspects of writing that I feel least confident about is the actual nitty-gritty aspect of selecting the right words and putting them in the best order to create effective sentences. While people tell me that my writing is good, too often I notice myself relying on the same structures and patterns, or being too self-consciously wordy or terse.

So, what I thought I would do to try to address this concern (and hopefully improve this aspect of my writing) is analyse a few short segments of writing by authors whose prose style I enjoy—nothing too outré, like Joyce or Hemingway, but those whose styles make reading a pleasure—alongside a piece of my own. By looking at how they construct sentences, word choice, sentence length and so on, I hope to identify things I am doing badly and need to improve, as well as things that I'm doing well but could improve through conscious attention.

The authors and novels that I've chosen for this exercise are:

  • Pulitzer Prize finalist Don DeLillo, Underworld;
  • Pulitzer winner Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys;
  • World Fantasy Award winner Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana;
  • and a segment of the first draft of my own book, Bridge.

I've tried to pick writers that don't have a particularly distinctive style (sorry, David Foster Wallace) and novels that aren't notable for their literary style (so no Wolf Hall). In the interests of randomness, I'm going to pick the first page ending in -57 that isn't all dialogue, and look at all of the complete paragraphs on that page.

Underworld

Cotter goes south on the avenue and runs half a block and then he turns and does a caper, he does a physical jape—running backwards for a stretch, high-stepping, mocking, showing Bill the baseball. He's a cutup in a sour state. He holds the ball chest-high and turns it in his fingers, which isn't easy when you're running—he rotates the ball on its axis, spins it slowly over and around, showing the two hundred and sixteen raised red cotton stitches.

Don't tell me you don't love this move.

The maneuver makes Bill slow down. He looks at Cotter backpedaling, doing a danceman's strut, but he doesn't detect an opening here. Because the maneuver makes him realize where he is. The fact that Cotter's not scared. The fact that he's parading the baseball. Bill stops completely but is too smart to look around. Best to limit your purview to straight ahead. Because you don't know who might be looking back at you. And the more enlightened he becomes, the more open grows the space for Cotter's anger. He doesn't really know how to show it. This is the second time today he has taunted someone but he doesn't feel the spunky rush of dodging the cop. The high heart of the gatecrash is a dimness here—he is muddled and wrung out and can't get his bad-ass glare to function. So he stands there flatfoot and looks at Bill with people walking by and noticing and not noticing and he spins the ball up and over the back of his hand and catches it skipping off his wrist with a dip and twist of the same hand, like fuck you mister who you messing with.

He looks at Bill, a flushed and panting man who has vainly chased along a railroad track for the five-oh-nine.

Analysis

DeLillo does some interesting things here. Firstly, he misuses the dash; Strunk & White says that we should "use a dash only when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate," but here there are three in just a few paragraphs. They act to give the prose more character, as if the narrator is given to longer pauses in his storytelling. He breaks more 'rules' by starting sentences with "because" or "and," and he also makes use of distinctive and uncommon language; "He's a cutup in a sour state" and "he stands there flatfoot" add unique flavour to the prose.

Some other techniques he uses are presenting the internal feelings of the character as prose ("Don't tell me you don't love this move," "fuck you mister who you messing with"); repeated patterns of words (two consecutive sentences begin "The fact that..."); and stringing together a long sentence without punctuation (the sentence beginning "So he stands there..." joins seven clauses in sequence using "and" or "with" conjunctions; the first sentence also has a similar construction).

In terms of sentence length, DeLillo mirrors the action in the length of his sentences. When the characters are moving, the sentences are longer, great run-on series of one action after another. But when Cotter and Bill stop running, the pace of the writing also slows. Short sentence follows short sentence. (Interestingly, this is in direct contradiction to most writing advice, which says that you should use shorter sentences to convey faster action.)

DeLillo sentence graphs

The graphs above show how the sentence length ebbs and flows, and the frequency of different lengths. You can see how he mixes long and short sentences together, with most under 20 words but broken up by a very few far longer outliers.

Wonder Boys

"It was on Opening Day."

"You liked it that I let you listen to the ball game. I got that rototiller thing and I plowed under the whole field. Then I had them come in with all that horseshit. The ground steamed for a week. Then I put up the fence. I built the beds. I planted spinach and broccoli and wax beans."

"I remember," I said.

"You're going to tell Emily about us," she said, in the same dreamy voice. She reached for my right hand and laid it atop the modest dome of her belly. "About this."

I lay on my side, looking up at the tangled iron lace of the roof over our heads. I saw that Sara, alone in a frail canoe, was drifting nearer and nearer to the roaring misty cataract of motherhood, and that she now believed I was right behind her, in the stern, madly paddling. I searched my feelings, an activity never far removed from looking for a dead rat in a spidery crawl space under the house. I was appalled to see, after five years' exposure to the unstoppable isotopes of my love, how many of her hopes Sara Gaskell still entrusted to me; how much of her faith there remained for me to shatter. How could I tell her the terrible things I had to tell her? Your dog is dead. You have to get an abortion.

"I'll tell Emily," I said. After a moment I took my hand from her belly, kissed her cheek, and then hauled myself to my feet. "I'd better get going. I left James Leer sitting out in the car."

Analysis

This excerpt is more traditional in style and form. There are some strong metaphors deployed, comparing impending motherhood to going over a waterfall in a canoe, the narrator's feelings to a "spidery crawl space," and comparing his love to "unstoppable isotopes." It's also interesting how he evokes multiple senses: smell (the steaming horseshit), hearing ("dreamy voice"), touch ("my right hand [...] atop [...] her belly") and sight ("I saw," "I was appalled to see").

Chabon sentence graphs

Again, the frequency of sentence lengths shows a clear weight towards the lower end of the scale, with many shorter sentences balanced by only a few longer ones. In this excerpt, the shorter sentences are almost entirely in dialogue, with the three longest appearing in sequence during a break for narration.

Tigana

They stopped, as planned, after the sixth stage, for their own sake and their listeners'. Tomasso had spoken with Menico beforehand, and the nobles' progression past Sandre's bier would now take place upstairs. After, the company would finish with the last three rites, ending on Devin's 'Lament', and then the body would be brought down and the crowd outside admitted with their leaves for the crystal vase.

Menico led them out of the courtyard amid a silence so deep it was their highest possible accolade. They re-entered the room that had been reserved for their use. Caught up in the mood they themselves had created, no one spoke. Devin moved to help the two dancers into the robes they wore between performances and then watched as they paced the perimeter of the room, slender and cat-like in their grace. He accepted a glass of green wine from one of the servants but declined the offered plate of food. He exchanged a glance but not a smile—not now—with Alessan. Drenio and Pieve, the syrenya-players, were bent over their instruments, adjusting the strings. Eghano, pragmatic as ever, was eating while idly drumming the table with his free hand. Menico walked by, restless and distracted. He gave Devin a wordless squeeze on the arm.

Devin looked for Catriana and saw her just then leaving the room through an inner archway. She glanced back. Their glances met for a second, then she went on. Light, strangely filtered, fell from a high unseen window upon the space where she had been.

Devin really didn't know why he did it. Even afterwards when so much had come to pass, flowing outwards in all directions like ripples in water from this moment, he was never able to say exactly why he followed her.

Analysis

This is probably the most straightforward style of the three, with every clause and sentence a simple noun-verb combination. What's interesting, I think, is that here (as in the two previous examples) the shortest sentences are utilised as attention-grabbing mental roadblocks, as if to tell the reader, "Hey, stop! Pay attention! This is important."

Kay sentence graphs

Kay also has the widest fluctations in sentence length; almost every sentence is followed by one very different in length. It provides a rhythm of sorts, the tempo becoming gradually faster as sentences get shorter, until we reach the inflection point ("She glanced back.") and return to almost the longest sentence in the excerpt. Again, almost every sentence is under 20 words in length.

Bridge

Although he would have denied that he was looking for it, it didn’t take him long to locate the small locked door suggested by the discovery of the key. Behind the audience chamber, opposite the double doors that allowed the public in to view council proceedings, lay another set of double doors secured by a large bar. Judging by the scuff marks to either side of the doors there were usually guards stationed here, thought Greef as he hefted the heavy bar in his arms before tipping it onto the ground with a clang that echoed around the chamber. He paused for a second, waiting to see if the guards from outside had heard, but when nobody appeared he pushed open the doors and went inside. It appeared to be a series of storage alcoves, crates and bundles piled up in each. Greef ran a hand over some of the boxes as he moved into the dark space, but his eyes were on the narrow door at the end of the room. When he reached it he didn’t hesitate, but plunged the key into the keyhole and turned it with a click. The door creaked open, but he could see nothing inside but darkness. Swearing, he stamped out of the corridor to find a torch.

When he returned, the flickering light of the small torch threw strange reflections back at him as he approached the door and the room beyond. He stepped inside and looked about, and his jaw dropped open. Shelves, laden with ornate and jewel-incrusted cups, impractical for any use but being admired. Boxes of coin, heaped high. Jewellery and carvings of the highest quality — not that Greef would have claimed to be any judge, but he knew what he liked — some arranged to display the pieces to best effect, while others were thrown together in a tangle. It was an embarrassment of riches, except Greef was never one to feel embarrassed.

Analysis

And so we come to my own writing; this segment is a first draft, with no editing carried out at all. Yes, that's an excuse.

The first thing I notice is that I have a tendency to avoid starting sentences with a strong noun or pronoun, instead favouring a weaker preposition or even a gerund verb on two occasions. I also tend to string together long sets of clauses, which is reflected in the graph of sentence lengths and frequencies.

Bridge sentence graphs

It's clear that my unedited preference is for longer sentences, with only one in single digits, and half of them containing more than 25 words. The distribution looks markedly different to the other authors above; in fact, the average word count per sentence is between 25% and 81% longer than the other excerpts I chose! There's also a lack of the sort of techniques employed by those writers—no metaphor or simile, no evocation of multiple senses, no internal feelings escaping onto the page. Clearly there are many ways in which I can improve.

Onwards and upwards

It would be easy to become disheartened by this kind of exercise, but as I said at the start of this piece, there's nothing that can't be addressed through careful study. Now that I am a little more aware of the type of things I want to avoid doing—and the areas that can be improved—I can write with more intentionality, and hopefully start to take steps towards improving the quality of my writing.

Matthew Pennell

Designer, developer, writer, runner, gamer, devil's advocate, INTP. Senior designer for Booking.com. Founder, Refresh Cambridge.
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