I wonder if my recent angst towards writing is mostly attributable to reading “Several Short Sentences About Writing” by Verlyn Klinkenborg for the second time in about a month. Which is a book that has made me think more about how I write than anything I have done since high school. Yes, that was a damned long time ago.
This is less a book review and more thinking out loud about how Klinkenborg’s writing has made me stop and think about my writing.
Why would re-reading a book about writing make it difficult to write?
Klinkenborg challenged many of my cherished beliefs about how I write.
I am working towards becoming a better writer. After reading it the first time, I saw potential in how this way of writing could help me towards that goal. I struggled to wrap my thinking around how best to incorporate his ideas into my writing and re-read “Several Short Sentences About Writing, to help clear-up questions I had.
I finished reading “Several Short Sentences About Writing”, for the second time this morning, it was still a struggle. Reading the words was easy, but conceptualizing how to incorporate Klinkenborg’s ideas into how I have always written continues to be difficult.
His accumulation of short sentences made me think too much about my current writing process and the direction that I want to go in the future.
Moving in the direction he champions, would mean significant changes to my writing process.
To start with, the book itself is visually disconcerting. Klinkenborg used a single line for each sentence or thought throughout.
Which was difficult for me to focus on and read at first.
You were taught the perfect insincerity of the writing exercise,
Asked to write pieces in which you didn’t and couldn’t believe.
You learned a strange ventriloquism,
Saying things you were implicitly being asked to say,
Knowing that no one was really listening.
You were being taught to write as part of a transaction that had
Almost nothing to do with real communication,
Learning to treat the making of sentences as busywork,
A groping for words, an act of drudgery,
A way of dressing up your meaning or your argument with almost no attention to the character of the words or sentences you were using,“Several Short Sentences About Writing”, Verlyn Klinkenborg- page 30
As I got used to the lack of paragraphs, transitions, metaphors, and other extraneous words that detract from ideas we attempt to communicate in our writing. I found it easier to follow his lines of thought.
This way of presenting our writing is not the generally accepted format and he doesn’t write this way regularly either from other books that I found of his. It does highlight how much of what we write is filler and the amount of dancing around what we want to say that we do. Often to meet an artificial word count, more than to say what is needed to be said.
Experimenting with a new process is hard. Wordsmithing is something I have done for more than forty years and I have developed my own style over that time. To attempt to make any changes will take time and effort.
There is a learning curve that must be mastered.
Attempting to write this post, using my interpretation of his methods, is much more difficult than my usual writing process.
- Letting the Muses guide me where they will, then going back to clean up the mess that has been created.
That isn’t how Klinkenborg states we should write.
Try this instead:
Revise at the point of composition.
Compose at the point of revision.
Accept no provisional sentences.
Make no drafts
And no draft sentences.
Bring the sentence you’re working on as close to its final state as you can
Before you write it down and after.
Do the same for the next sentence
And right on through to the end.
Think of composition and revision as the same thing,
Different versions of thinking,
Philosophically indistinguishable.“Several Short Sentences About Writing”, Verlyn Klinkenborg (p88)
While working on this piece, I feel as though I am losing too many great ideas or concepts that should be included in this article. Ideas that I immediately want to get out of my head and on the screen. Due to focusing on the sentence in front of me, they are being lost to the Aethyr.
Those words that flowed so easily from the fingertips in the past are gone…or are they?
It’s easy to believe in “flow” if you can’t feel the difference between a dead sentence and a living one
Or see the ambiguities you’re accidentally creating.
In other words, “flow” is often a synonym for ignorance and laziness.
It’s also a sign of haste, the urge to be done.“Several Short Sentences About Writing”, Verlyn Klinkenborg (p69)
I think that the last phrase is the one that captures much of how I write. In school and throughout writing for work we learned of — the need to be done. Not the idea that writing can be rewarding or possibly fun while sorting out the thoughts you have.
It isn’t that I can’t do it.
Writing this way requires more thinking than putting words on screen or paper.
This level of focusing on each sentence as I write is not how I have written in the past.
So, you’ll be revising each sentence as you compose it.
Composing each sentence as you revise it.
And you’ll read and reread every sentence you make many dozens of times,
Sifting out problems as they materialize in front of you.
You’ll be looking for flaws.
But also for opportunities—and for missed opportunities:
Things you might have said, ideas you might have developed,“Several Short Sentences About Writing”, Verlyn Klinkenborg (p90)
Many of the above concepts are the opposite of how I was taught to write. This section of the book forced me to look at how I write differently.
When using his methods for the first time, while writing this piece. I find that I am not rushing through attempting to get to the end. Though the sentences seem choppier and disconnected at times, they also are better written.
The rushing through to the end has always been a troublesome trait that hasn’t served my writing well over the years. Too often my work has not met the standards I would expect from someone with my experience, simply because I am rushing to hit publish or turn in work.
That is not good enough. Working on an article, post, or written piece, by focusing on the sentence does make me slow down. I have to look at what I have said in that sentence and how it fits the one before, as well as the overall article.
This passage is one of many that I will keep going back to.
Most aspiring writers write too soon.
They think writing is a transitive act instead of an intransitive one.
Everything they know about writing—all those images of writers writing—
Hastens them to the desk,
Where they sit perched over the keyboard or pen in hand,
Caught in an anticipatory gesture,
Eyes intent on the possibilities of the screen,
Poised at the brink of thought, but not actually thinking,
As though by leaning forward a sentence will tip out of their heads
And onto the page.“Several Short Sentences About Writing”, Verlyn Klinkenborg (p47)
It described me all too often…Perched, ready to write. Yet, how many times do I walk away with nary a word written that I used later?
Too many, methinks.
Today I am focused on, how and what I am saying. My sentences are shorter but say more.
There is a sense of confidence in what I am writing that was missing before.
Part of the trouble may be this:
You’re afraid your ideas aren’t good enough,
Your sentences not clever or original enough.
But what if your ideas are coherent and thoughtful?
What if your perceptions are accurate and true?
Your sentences clear and direct?
What if allowing us to see what’s accurate and true is among the best work writing can do?
Saying the obvious thing briefly and clearly and
Observing the critical detail are hard enough.“Several Short Sentences About Writing”, Verlyn Klinkenborg (p132)
So much of this is the direction that I avoided for so long. Always downplaying my experience or expertise with some qualifier, caused me to play into the imposter syndrome game that so many of us needlessly play.
I do know what I know.
I am beginning to grasp how I can incorporate Klinkenborg’s short sentence philosophy into my writing process. I needed to use the concepts he shared in the book in an actual document before they became more than some oddball theory from on high.
The thinking and writing processes of putting together an article that others would care to read are not separated into neat little stops along the way to publishing.
When I focus on each sentence within the context of the article I am working on, the results are a definite improvement from where I was.
We become so ingrained in how we do something that we don’t look for other ways to do things differently. Those other ways may not always be better, but do bring a change of perspective to what we have always done.
What you write—what you send out into the world to be read—
Is the residue of the choices and decisions you make.
Choices and decisions you are responsible for.“Several Short Sentences About Writing”, Verlyn Klinkenborg (p36)
But it is necessary to find and look at other ways. If we want to bring new ideas to life and make choices that might be different from “how I have always done it”.
Do the Muses always bless those who blindly use what they give?
If you believe in the Muses, while their gifts are often thoughtful or needed, they also love to tease and beguile us mere mortals.
I wonder if they give more to those who think and dare to challenge the words or ideas the Muse might have initially chosen for us. The choice is ours whether we believe that what the Muses give us are worthy ideas or words. Sometimes, I wonder if they test our resolve or insight into what we are doing.
Though I do believe they respect those who think first about the gifts that are offered, how those gifts will be used, and then work to make them worthy of the reader’s attention.
What I learned
Will I always write using Klinkenborg’s methods?
But I do see parts of his writing process becoming mine as well. Which will assist me in becoming a better writer.
“Several Short Sentences About Writing” is a book that I will be reading again before the end of 2022.
I leave us both with this thought from Klinkenborg.
Your writing is your responsibility, first and last, in every detail.
No one will fix it or clean it up.
It’s your job to be clear, precise, intelligent, resourceful, poetic, and wise
In prose of staggering clarity, all of it perfectly proofread.
That’s why you became a writer, isn’t it?“Several Short Sentences About Writing”, Verlyn Klinkenborg (p145)