One of this blague's more inquisitive readers is a talented young journalist who knows that before Vivian de St. Vrain morphed into Dr. Metablog, he had spent a lifetime either bent unproductively over the ball point or wearily pounding on the word-processor. The young reader has asked this question: what have decades of practice taught you, Dr. M., about the craft of writing? And in response, Dr. M. has peered soulwise and discovered -- not a heck of a lot.
Yet in all fairness, the curious reader's question is flattering and deserves a response. And therefore Dr. M. has pondered and pondered and has now refined the drossy deposits that clog his brainal synapses into as much wisdom as he feels qualified to dispense. (Let us be clear -- the advice that follows is not meant to be argumentative or prescriptive or know-it-all. Different writers do things in different ways. The precepts that are offered here may not apply to all writing; they describe only the Way of the Metablog.)
Let us assume that the seeker of advice brings to the table intelligence and information and a point of view -- but needs a little coaching on tactics. Point one:
Just as I respect the first tenet of real estate -- location, location, location -- so I subscribe to the most important (but often neglected) rule of writing, which is
A) plot, plot, plot, plot, plot. The writer must tell a story. People relish stories, respond to narrative, and are most engaged when they pursue a plot's twists and turns. Just because it's non-fiction, doesn't mean that the story-teller's bag of tricks cannot be accessed. Fortunately, every piece of prose from the briefest anecdote to the most convoluted intellectual argument can and should be structured as a narrative. In non-fiction, the first rule of plotting is to "establish the enigma." The enigma need not be a formal question, but it's indisputable that every essay answers either an explicit or an unspoken question. Is not every writer free to shape that implicit inquiry to his own purposes? And in the process of delivering an answer, is he not also free to sprinkle clues (some of them red herrings) along the path? And also at liberty to let his readers dangle until the moment comes to gratify their curiosity--and while they dangle, to let them endure suspense; suspense that can be intensified by teasing the reader about what's going to happen next? And every once in a while, to spring a surprise by veering off on an unanticipated or even misleading tangent? Nor is there anything wrong with the judicious flashback, the flashforward, or the deceptive digression -- tricks of the trade that have won the laurel since the bronze age, centuries before the time when "establish the enigma" became the watchword. Remember: "all writing is fiction, especially non-fiction."
Connoisseurs of storytelling know that the most indispensable element in any narrative is climax. Because climax is so essential, it must be exploited to the full, not just on the universal level but also on the particular, and therefore
B) every sentence should achieve climax. As a general rule, the climax should come in the sentence's last phrase, or better still, in its final climactic word. The crucial, contributing part of every sentence, the idea which it strives to convey, the very target of its forward motion, should, whenever artistically feasible, come dead last. When this precept is honored, each sentence becomes an arrow aimed at its own natural target. And it follows as night the day, that every paragraph should also come to climax--and that the climax of the paragraph should be its own last sentence. So designed, sentences and paragraphs carry within them both the exciting pressure of forward motion and also coherence of argument. There's an ancillary benefit: when a sentence terminates in a climax, transitions become less awkward, because the intellectual content (or logic) of sentence B begins just where sentence A left off, and the logic of sentence C starts where B concludes. Sentences and logic coalesce and become as one. This maxim, true for sentences, is even more true for paragraphs. And therefore it follows that a practiced writer, making deft use of climax, can easily
C) avoid ungainly mechanical transitions, such as "nevertheless," "moreover, "on the other hand," and even that offensive bit of pop neojargonianism, "having said that" -- for these fillers are words that constrict the thoroughfare of thought. Of course there will be times when such connectives usefully signal a switch in direction, but for the most part, transitions between sentences and paragraphs should not be mechanical, i.e. by the use of conjunctive phrases and adverbs, but logical. Logical transitions need not rely on distracting howevers, however easy and tempting it might be to employ them. The best transitions are transparent or, even better, invisible. If a writer studies his sentences and is compelled to admit that they are only linked by banausic connectives, then he must judge whether the argument he offers is truly coherent or whether its logical weaknesses have been plastered over with rhetorical flamflammery. Any writer who wants his prose to be persuasive will profit by examining his connectives. And while the writer is engaged in such scrutiny, he should also check to see that he has
D) transferred important concepts from nouns and adjectives into verbs. And by verbs, I mean verbs of vigor--not copulatives, passives, or colorless neutral words like seem, appear, make, or do. I mean verbs with punch, or better still, verbs that punch. In revising a sentence, it's a good idea to determine whether it's the nouns and their modifiers that bear the brunt of the argument. If they are doing more than their fair share of the labor, then it is mandatory to reconfigure the sentence so that the verbs strain and lift and carry. A paragraph rich in colorful verbs is active and infectious and engaging; a paragraph loaded with nouns and modifiers can be clotted and static. Strong verbs keep things moving. They keep the plot in gear. They add grit and heft. And so does the related process whereby
E) generalizations and abstractions are replaced by instances and examples. Let me provide an example. A friend, a large man who has always savored his sauce Bearnaise, wrote this sentence to me: "My doctor--an Asian woman who weighs about fifteen pounds--has been hectoring me about my reluctance to subsist on twigs and grasses." What an excellent sentence -- not just because of the colorful verbs ("hector," "subsist"), the ironic faux-hyperbole ("about fifteen pounds") or the fact that the sentence rises to a splendid climax, but because of the specificity of "twigs and grasses." A lesser writer might have, instead of "subsist on twigs and grasses," employed a bland formula such as "go on a diet" or "become a vegetarian." But by using the concrete "twigs and grasses" for the abstract "diet" or "vegetarian," my correspondent has not only caught our attention and amused us, but he has created a metaphor. "Twigs and branches" is specific and visual and memorable. While these nouns stand for "diet" and "vegetarian," they also stand for whatever penumbra of meaning my friend's readers bring to the interpretation of these words. In my own case, it's a irresistible vision of a big guy metamorphosed into a large twitchy-nostrilled rabbit nibbling the bark of willows. Such is the paradox of the metaphor: the more specific the word, the more spacious the liberty of interpretation. Poets know this instinctively; that's why they're poets. But remember, writers: metaphor is only one of a bucketload of figures of speech. The astute writer does not limit himself to metaphor alone, but remembers to
F) use figures of speech of all kinds: pun, simile, alliteration, oxymoron, parataxis, hyperbole, understatement or litotes, irony, metonymy (where an individual stands for a class), synecdoche (where a part signifies the whole), aposiopesis -- I could go on and on! It's the figure of speech that keeps things lively, that makes prose sparkle and that make readers, already enthralled with plot and dazzled by recurrent exciting climaxes, fully engage with the written word. After all, writing has no value unless it attracts and holds the reader. And so it follows that a writer must, finally,
G) know and respect his readership. He must provide all the information that a reader needs to follow the argument. Yet at the same time, he must resist the temptation to be over-explicit. Let readers do some of the work. Let them complete the connections that the writer only suggests. It will keep them on their toes, make them feel intelligent, and retain their interest. And while they're so engaged, the writer might remind himself of another precept, which is to try to
H) make syntax and logic work together. Get them on the same track. Put the main idea in the main clause, put subordinate ideas in subordinate clauses. Put the parenthetical idea in a parenthetical clause. Put parallel ideas in parallel clauses, but when ideas are not parallel, emphasize their incompatibility by using contrasting syntactic structure. Syntax is a tool Sentences in which logic is chugging onward and syntax is all over the map can be confusing and even impenetrable. Alexander Pope said about poetry, "The sound should be an echo to the sense." In prose, the syntax should be an echo to the sense; or rather, the sense should be an echo to the syntax; or even better, the syntax and the sense should take each other's hand and dance the same dance. And finally (and this time the "finally" is not meant to be misleading),
I) scrutinize every word and see if it is necessary or whether it can either be omitted or made more precise. When in doubt, throw it out. Or amend it. It should be a maxim that in good writing, no one ever "walks down the street." And by "walks down the street," I certainly do not mean "walk down the street." "Walks down the street" is a metaphor for a colorless expression. Why should someone walk down the street, when he can totter, or saunter, or sashay, or hurtle, or trot, or swagger, or stagger, or promenade down an avenue, boulevard, lane, causeway, footpath, or promenade? English overflows with words that are specific, evocative, and suggestive. Let's have fewer street-walkers and more sidewalk-promenaders. Keats said the the poet should "load every rift with ore," and so should the writer of non-fiction. But be careful not to overload; don't allow prose to slide toward the baroque. And at last
J) feel perfectly free to ignore the canard that you were taught in grade school--that every piece of writing needs a conclusion. It doesn't. As a general rule, avoid formal conclusions.