Activate your sentences


The emotionally powerful climax of "Wuthering Heights."


Today I discuss active writing, which means you should use at least three exclamation points at the end each sentence and must type with ‘Caps Lock’ engaged. Also, when you get stuck, blow something up. Active writing has lots of explosions, even if you are doing a period mystery set in the servants’ quarters of a Victorian manor. Don’t worry if they didn’t have plastic explosives back then. The important thing is –

[Editor’s note: Sorry, my cat was walking on the keyboard and accidentally typed that. Since cats know nothing about literature, please ignore him. The real bit about active writing is below]

*** *** *** *** *** ***

There are better ways to arrange this sentence.

I can start by axing “there are” from the beginning. And every other sentence I ever write, since “there are” and “there is” suck the life out of whatever follows. By using them, you’re warning your readers to expect passive constructions the rest of the way.

In my opening sentence above, “there” is a passive placeholder for my subject, ways to arrange. Why bother sticking a dull abstraction in the beginning? Just lead with the subject and type, “Ways to arrange this sentence better there are.”

Wait a minute. That sounds ridiculous! Maybe I need to rethink the whole thing. I’ll start by asking, What am I trying to accomplish? Well, I’m trying to fix that sentence, so I should probably move the word “sentence” forward. And I know from reading my last blog post that fewer words are usually better than more words. Which words do I need?

I need sentence and better, plus some verbs or something. How about:

“This sentence could be better.”

Not bad, but better is relative (better than what?) and could is a wishy washy, like I’m not sure. When a word has more than one meaning and you’re not aiming for a clever play on words, find a more specific term. My goal is to improve the opening sentence, so why don’t I just use improve instead of better? And could is for when you are weighing options (We could follow the 2012 elections, or we could run face-first into a brick wall and get the same experience). Can is more confident, and confidence is convincing to a reader. Thus:

This sentence can be improved.

In an ironic twist, it can’t. Since we have nowhere else to go with this discussion, my cat says I have to blow something up (now is a good time to don your Kaiser helmet).


5 responses to “Activate your sentences

  • nrhatch

    Cats rule!!! {{KA~BOOM!!!}}

  • Bryan Edmondson

    I enjoyed this post. You talk like a linguistic scientist. You you meticulously worked on one sentence while studying it under a microscope.

    • ericjbaker

      You read a lot about “active writing” and so forth, but you don’t always get real examples or mental processes charted out. I hope this helps those who are looking for concrete explanations.

  • Arkenaten

    In one of my novels I wrote this:

    The cat slammed one very large paw on top of the fish and gave Isack a look that said, ‘Are you feeling lucky, Knewt? Go ahead, make my day. I want you to reach for the fish. Really I do.’
    There are times in life when a man has to do what a man has to do.
    Isack cut two slices of bread, buttered one, laid a lettuce leaf and a piece of cheese on top and made a sandwich.

    (My emphasis. And, it’s comic fantasy for context)

    I use there are and there is in dialogue.

    What say you, oh guru of my writing nightmares? 😉

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