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I’m a Different Writer After Reading “Several Short Sentences About Writing”

A book about writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg

Image by author (me)

6 min read

I struggled not to highlight every sentence in this book. I loved it so much. It surprised me in so many ways and taught me things about writing I had never heard before.

Here are my key takeaways, nerdy stuff only writers will find interesting.

The Writer’s Job

It’s not to write paragraphs, stories, or books.

Your job as a writer is to make sentences that express the invisible content of your mind with surgical precision. This requires patience, awareness, and attention. It can be challenging.

But you can make your job easier by thinking and writing in short sentences.

Short sentences give you control over your prose. The brevity of a short sentence helps you spot faulty constructions and optional words that lessen the impact of your message. Short sentences are easier to write than long sentences.

What are long sentences?

Nothing but a combination of short ones.

So if you can’t write a clear, concise, short sentencewriting a successful long one becomes impossible. Take great care of the short sentence — that’s your job. That’s how you’ll improve your craft.

I never saw writing in this way.

“There are innumerable ways to write badly. The usual way is making sentences that don’t say what you think they do.”— Verlyn Klinkenborg, Several Short Sentences About Writing, P.4

Writing by Implication

The ability to write a sentence that invites the reader to complete the thought.

You don’t say everything, you don’t explain everything. The more you do that, the less your readers will be able to imply. Say less than you could and let your readers form their own thoughts, make their own assumptions, draw their own conclusions.

How exactly does “writing by implication” work in practice?

I’m not sure yet.

But as a reader, I can feel when the writer is telling me something much greater than his words alone could express. I’ll be on the lookout for this feeling when reading, and see if I can figure out what type of writing generates it.

“One of a writer’s most important tools: The ability to suggest more than the words seem to allow, the ability to speak to the reader in silence.” — Verlyn Klinkenborg, Several Short Sentences About Writing, P.13

Transitions and Logic

When I was learning English, my second language, I was taught to use linking phrases to “guide the reader through the text”. I was told to connect sentences and paragraphs using “if fact,” “on the other hand,” and “however”.

When I later became an English teacher, I told my students to use these phrases too, but in moderation.

Then I read Several Short Sentences About Writing.

“These words take the reader’s head between their hands and force her to look where they want her to. Imagine how obnoxious that is, that persistent effort to predetermine and overgovern the reader’s response.” — Verlyn Klinkenborg, Several Short Sentences About Writing, Pp. 118–119

If you write clearly, the reader will be perfectly capable of following your ideas as you lay them out, word after word, sentence after sentence.

Write clearly.

Write so clearly that you won’t need any extra words to indicate the nature of the relationship between one sentence and another.

Then trust your reader has a working mind.

In Your Head

I’ve often told my students to make a draft first.

Write everything down and have all your ideas on the page. Don’t worry about how you express those ideas. Don’t worry about grammar, vocabulary, or syntax. Only worry about having ideas on the page.

Content first, form later.

In Several Short Sentences About Writing, Klinkenborg suggests a different way: composing and revising at the same time.

You make a sentence in your head, and then you tweak it, you improve it, you observe its shape. Most importantly, you pay attention to what you’re thinking.

Don’t write the sentence until you’ve decided it is close to its final version. Then make your final improvements on the page. Do this sentence after sentence until your piece is done.

Why work this way?

Source: Amazon

An idea on the page is an idea that exists in the material world. You can get your eyes and hands on it to shape it.

But a provisional sentence sometimes has the effect of channelling your thoughts in one direction, which in turn prevents you from examining other ideas and possibilities hidden in some remote corner of your mind. A provisional sentence can restrict your thinking. I’ve experienced this first hand.

What if you resist the temptation to fill the screen with words and instead write in your head?

Would this lead to better thinking? Better writing?

This is something I’ve started experimenting with. Now and then, I get away from the screen and walk from one room to another, both physically and mentally. I return to the screen only when I have a good sentence.

It does help.

“Composing and revising at the same time won’t be easy at first. You’ll make sentences that seem finished and then find flaws in them. Finding flaws is how you learn to make better sentences. Enjoy it.” — Verlyn Klinkenborg, Several Short Sentences About Writing, Pp. 90–91

Write About What?

We were always given writing prompts in school. Write an essay on this, write another one on that. We wrote about what the teacher wanted.

What do we write about today?

We often write about what our client wants, what our ideal reader wants, what the algorithm wants, what our side hustle coach says we should want. There may be good reasons for this.

But what if you start writing about what you want? Something you want to learn, something you noticed that makes you curious — something that interests you.

I’m sure many writers would find this unsettling. They fear confusing their audience. The idea of publishing random pieces that are not in line with their 150-character social media bio is enough to trouble their minds.

How do I know this? Because I’m one of those writers.

But on page 142, I read this:

“Imagine a cellist playing one of Bach’s solo suites. Does he consider his audience? (Did Bach, for that matter?) Does he play the suite differently to audiences of different incomes and educations and social backgrounds? No. The work selects its audience.”

That last sentence keeps reverberating in my mind.

I can write about whatever I want because I’m a 1-person business, not Coca-Cola. I can decide to be useful to anyone I want with my writing.

“The work selects its audience.”

And you can have more than one audience at the same time. As a writer, I find this so liberating.

Read This Book Please

I interviewed my favourite writer on my podcast / YouTube channel. His name is Derek Sivers. He’s written 5 books that have considerably influenced my thinking.

When we talked about Several Short Sentences About Writing, he said:

“I do also highly recommend that every writer read that because it’s very different from any other book about writing that you will ever find. It’s not like anything you’ll find online. It’s not like any blog post you’ve ever read. It’s very unique and has some very good points.” — Derek Sivers, from my YouTube interview with him.

There’s so much more to learn from this book than what I was able to explain in this post.

Consider getting yourself a copy.

 

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