If you’re interested, here’s a glimpse of me editing myself. *Ruthless*
If you’re interested, here’s a glimpse of me editing myself. *Ruthless*
Put a touch of magic in your ending.
The last impression you leave of your writing rests on your closing thoughts, which will ring more loudly than the opening sentence that well may have gone forgotten halfway into your narrative. In my school years, I struggled not to copy my first paragraph in the last. With practice, I saw one way to dress the ending was to add a personal layer from my experiences. What is good writing? Fiction or not, it lives beyond its page. Relatable perspectives or stories will stay with the reader. And while an interesting plot or message serves as the architecture, paint it in dull, uniform colors and it won’t sell. So vivid pictures through to the end are another way to keep the words alive. The use of verbs I examined in The Writing Process, Part 3 becomes less an issue in the final sentence, a literal place that does not call for momentum. There, you want to bring your ideas to rest. Nouns and adjectives, then, can make the difference away from an insipid finish. How do you vivify nouns when they are often simply things, people, places? This is where metaphors and similes can shine.
Before we look at a model piece of writing by Abraham Lincoln, I’d like to share its cultural context. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman describes how political debates ran longer than the advent of television began to allow. Americans stood through hours of each of the seven famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates. I believe Lincoln’s oratory skills sharpened him in the written word in a culture that Postman shows was more literate and less visual than ours. Public speaking remains an invaluable asset to the practice of writing for the challenge it presents in sustaining an audience. When you remove even the image of text from your audience so that your words are no longer read but only heard, you pull any vestige of distraction. Your words must stand on the merit of their content and the ability to engage listeners’ senses. I realize why the great orators from the conflagrant days of slavery in the U.S. wrote so brilliantly. An excellent speech is the hardest paper to write. The enunciated conclusion is the last snapshot of the speech the audience remembers.
Back to the deliberate use of grammar in the stylistic craft of an ending to an essay, narrative, piece of fiction, poem, or post. Lincoln’s letter of condolences to a mother who lost five sons in the Civil War demonstrates the full art of the parts of speech used well. Though Lincoln’s aim in the body of the missive was not the effects of verbs I’ve discussed, he did carry emotion and pictures in those verbs that propelled each sentence to the next. I feel how fruitless…to beguile you from the grief…But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation…Now look out for the nouns in his concluding sentence: I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish…and leave you only…the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
In the final sentence of the letter, the lackluster verb to be that attributes the solemn pride to the woman is colored over by the descriptive nouns anguish and sacrifice, and the metaphor altar. Altar is where you give all. You see fire, death, blood, ashes.
So often all you need is a word or two in that final sentence to provide a picture or feeling that continues to resonate in the spirit of the reader. A poem gives you a lot of room for a resounding note of provocation or beauty. In prose, you can also spin a unique, witty, funny, touching perspective. Employ a surprise or a pun. The blogger I quoted doubled back to his introductory assertion, “Ah, like life, water is a wonderful metaphor for writing” when he signed off by saying he needed to get in hot water as he pushes himself as a writer. The well-chosen noun or metaphor will not disappoint. In fact, subtle often beats anything amplified. One thing you don’t want to do in writing is overdo. Tacky. To return to our coloring analogy, a gentle stroke can bring your words to blush.
In extension of The Writing Process: Sensory Details, Part 4, I share a handful of poems a few private students produced years back. The wording fell into place once the ideas came to life in the brainstorm of senses (explained in Part 4). Tip of the day: quotes wake up poems with the element of reality they provide. I quieted the protest of the artist in me and convinced her to allow the first two works in excerpt. Yes, a poem should be read in its entirety. But I’d like to keep to my objective efficiently – to provide samples of sensory descriptions at work:
Red is spicy.
Red is ketchup: “Oops! My favorite shirt!”
In a sunset, red pulls the moon.
Red gives us energy.
Red means it.
By Joseph, 1st grade homeschooler
The shades that wrap a rain forest,
The feeling you have after a good night’s rest.
Outstretch of a palm tree,
Grudge of envy.
The life that awakens from a long winter snow,
Green is the fourth color of the promise rainbow.
By Kelsey, 4th grade
Leaves sticky patch on little faces
By the merry-go-round
“Mommy, Mommy, Can I please…?”
Little girls and boys wave their
cotton candy stick triumphantly
Melts to their tongue
More fluffy bites
Leave sandy sweetness in their trail
By Kristen Chang, days before turning 13. Now all grown:
Kristin and I were studying imagery – literary and poetic jargon for mental picture.
I was about 23, teaching 5th grade in a diverse Philadelphia public school. Hailstones and Halibut Bones, the beautiful book of color poetry that inspires kids out of mediocre writing, sparked lovely poems in my own students. (It is the most recent edition that offers vibrant pictures). The contagious delight the kids took playing with words that detailed everyday sensory experiences prompted a color poem out of their teacher too. It was a special experience for us to write together.
Once the brainstorm page filled up, the poems wrote themselves. We divided a sheet of paper into six rows, each representing a physical sense with the addition of one for emotions (Sight, Hearing, Touch, Taste, Smell, Feeling). Then simply named observations and experiences in their category. White: cotton candy for taste, blank coloring page for touch, chocolate for taste. Writers young and old will hear “show, not tell” or “paint a picture,” but may not quite know how to go about it. Sensory details paint clear verbal pictures, not unlike a 3-D presentation that appears to move toward the reader. They serve as a powerful writing tool for the grade school student as well as the blogger and the author on his fourth novel.
Here is the poem I wrote alongside my students that I’d completely forgotten about. I tried to keep it on the simple side so it’d be relatable for them. Feeling sheepish. I’d love to revise but share it to offer a glimpse of something born in happy league with little writers. Note the progression of a lifetime within the poem:
from the “Candy!” shouter,
eager page of a coloring book,
a glob of frosting some finger took,
little league socks,
the vanilla taste,
background of polka dots,
a special chocolate to crave,
ivory pearls that swim cream waves,
a careful prom dress,
marble sheet on a winter lake,
the bride in grace,
a queenly wedding cake.
A piano key, white
plays a note of simplicity.
White is romance heaven-blessed.
It is the color of promise
A dependable soul,
behind every color hides
a white shadow.
White hair is
humanity’s confession –
in age less the color of a question –
“Strength is gossamer,
time but a loan,”
white is the color
I’m not asking Hamlet’s existential question. To be or not to be? To live or kill myself? It’s literal grammar.
To eat –> She eats.
To dance –> She dances.
To be –> She
be. She is.
The verb TO BE conjugates, or breaks down, into the form is when referring to a singular third party he, she, or it.
She be sweet. She is sweet. TO BE morphs into are in the plural. They be sweet. They are sweet.
In all its conjugations, the verb TO BE serves as a referential foundation in the English language. TO BE enables us to assign description and value to people, things, ideas.
The trees are lovely in the wind.
Trees = Lovely
TO BE would be impossible not to use in speech and writing.
But artful writing shouldn’t depend on this verb. You want to minimize its appearance. As a verbal equal sign, TO BE makes assertions that fall flat. Good writing carries momentum. Because verbs are action words, they propel the message and description forward.
Rather than take up a whole sentence just to say the trees are lovely (apart from poetic circumstances that ask for this declaration), you could say
The lovely trees sway and bow in the wind.
Now the verbs sway and bow paint a picture the are doesn’t.
Here’s a clip from the post The Invisible Woman:
So-nyo, an elderly mother of four grown children, vanishes in the Seoul subways.
I could have written
So-nyo is an elderly mother of four grown children who vanishes in the Seoul subways.
The line I settled on runs on only one verb vanishes. I didn’t want to waste time and words stating what So-nyo is when I could show it while saying something more interesting or informative. My point is that she disappeared, not that she was an elderly mom of four.
I dug up two written samples from my high school days just now. *Wrinkle nose*
The mathematical straight line whose end arrows stretch on to eternity is the prime example. The line will always be at least a billionth of a millimeter off…
Twenty-five years later, I would say
The…line…serves as the prime example. It will remain at least….
Serves, stands, remains, runs are picturesque alternatives to is.
James’ simple act of giving milk for the sick children is profound and laudable in its contrast to the headmaster’s pretentious and futile plans for the village.
James’ simple, profound act of providing milk for the sick stands in glaring contrast to the….
The whole first sentence rests on the verb is. If you blip it, you are forced to retrieve a more interesting verb which in turn carries the writing forward rather than keep it static.
Circling back to our starting question, then:
when writing, it is better not to be.