flow, rhythm

Rhythm & flow in works of prose

October 6, 2009 | 3 Comments

Varying length, structure of sentences fosters voice & musicality. Clarity is a high virtue, but so is beauty; and increasingly I see that it is from varying length and sentence structure that writers achieve voice, rhythm, emphasis, and musicality. Variation works because we naturally vary our speaking rhythm when we’re emotionally connected to what we’re saying: “He fouled me! That jerk! Coach! You’re always telling us This is just a scrimmage—we’re still on the same team—don’t get carried away. Didn’t  you …

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A nifty concise essay

September 4, 2009 | 2 Comments

David Bailey—magazine journalist, restaurant critic and worker, foodie and barista, knockabout North Carolina writer, and my friend—has posted a delightful concise essay, “Daddy Needs a New Pair of Shoes,” on his blog, My Pie Hole. It’s a ramble, with visuals, voice, and flow. A taste: “I’ll admit that the kitchen dress code was easy to comply with: t-shirts, white sox, black pants and black shoes. The shoes were a trifle irksome, though. One pair admittedly looked a little worse for …

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That old fly on the wall

August 16, 2009 | No Comments

“Dialogue for me is the most effective and most interesting way of defining character, making it unnecessary for the writer to intrude with any song-and-dance routine of his own,” explains literary journalist Lillian Ross in Reporting Back: Notes on Journalism. “Moreover, as in a play or movie, dialogue moves the action along. That is why so many readers write to me and say that they felt, while reading a piece, that they were right there, with me.” “A tape recorder …

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Editing, exposed

March 20, 2009 | 2 Comments

Lois at her blog Narrative Nonfiction alerts writers to an experiment at Creative Nonfiction in which the editors have published, on the journal’s web site, the before and after versions of some essays in the current print issue. The revisions essentially involve massive cuts to the essays’ openings; the web page with the essays showing the changes using contrasting type colors includes a forum for reactions from readers, who can weigh in, pro and con and mixed. Creative Nonfiction’s editorial …

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Annie Dillard on structure in nonfiction

March 11, 2009 | No Comments

from “To Fashion a Text,” collected in Zinsser: Inventing the Truth “I like to be aware of a book as a piece of writing, and aware of its structure as a product of mind, and yet I want to see the represented world through it. I admire artists who succeed in dividing my attention more or less evenly between the world of their books and the art of their books. In fiction we might say that the masters are Henry …

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Those cursed teachers

February 2, 2009 | One Comment

Students’ essays about loved or hated teachers can delight or gag This is from Mike Crognale’s essay about a memorable teacher from his second-grade school days: There are different members of the Catholic clergy. At the top there is God, everybody knows about that subject. Next there is the pope, and from what I remember back then he was basically God’s right-hand man. Below the pope you have your cardinals, bishops, and priests. Then there were nuns and brothers. Sister …

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Between self and story

November 16, 2008 | 7 Comments

I encountered Papa’s warning in my teens, reading everything by and about him. When I went to work in newspapers after college, his phrase haunted at odd moments. I’d just knocked out my fourth police brief of a morning, say, and realized I had another to go—on an epidemic of car-battery thefts—and it was six minutes before deadline. Usually it was satisfying, working each little story like a jigsaw puzzle, selecting pieces culled from the police blotter. But was this what he meant?

A roundup of battery thefts doesn’t bring to life the widow, outsourced by the textile mill, turning her ignition key to silence in the Wal-Mart lot as plastic bags blow past. But it doesn’t intend to. Is there anything inherent in journalism (or nonfiction generally) that bars it from doing everything fiction might do with her story, including rendering her point of view?

Not theoretically, no. It’s thrilling to realize that. There are only practical difficulties, but admittedly brutal ones. You need her story and permission to use it; you have to get her to talk—in detail; and essentially she must let you enter her mind. The sheer work and trust involved in this process—call it reporting—is staggering. Talented immersion journalists succeed, but the difficulty may be one reason fiction has been a historic default for writers.

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