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Deliberate Practice For Authors
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Deliberate Practice For Authors Is What Exactly?

You can spend all day trying to think of some universal truth to set down on paper, and some poets try that. Shakespeare knew that it’s much easier to string together some words beginning with the same letter. It doesn’t matter what it’s about.

Mark Forsyth, the Elements of Eloquence, p. 10

Deliberate Practice For Authors isn’t my idea. The idea of ‘deliberate practice’ comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success, and the practice of actually doing it deliberately goes back to Benjamin Franklin (1705-1790) and before that to Shakespeare and the Romans.

In his study of how to get good, Gladwell found that the great practitioners of any art or craft practised it laboriously. Gladwell claims that it takes ten thousand hours of practising a skill to achieve mastery.

It should be said that these ten thousand hours of practice put you among the most dedicated and best. Josh Kaufman has refined this saying it only takes twenty hours to learn to do something reasonably. This advice seems to appeal because Kaufman’s Youtube video has been accessed more than twenty-two million times! I’m not sure how many copies Gladwell has sold, though I bet it’s a lot too.

And in any case, we’re with Gladwell: we don’t want to by okay, we want to be masterful!

Kaufman has some good things to say, though. He thinks that to become reasonable at any skill you need to:

  • 1. Deconstruct the skill
  • 2. Learn enough so that you can self-correct yourself
  • 3. Remove barriers that prevent or make it difficult to practice
  • 4. Commit from the start to practice at least 20 hours

Ben Franklin’s deliberate practice was based on him reading articles from The Spectator, and then, as I understand it, re-writing them in his own words.

There are lots of books and blog posts lying around on the Internet telling you how to write a story. They will discuss structure; they will elaborate on character arc, foreshadowing, unreliable narrators and points of view. That’s great. But it’s not what I want to achieve by my deliberate practice.

I don’t ignore advice about structure, and when I’m practising deliberately by copying it a passage from a great author I will comment to myself on these plot devices, but I’m mainly interested in sound. I think when we talk about prose stylists, we’re actually talking about how nice their writing sounds, not the smart things they have to say.

Joe Moran in his book First Write A Sentence (p 120) actually says, “But the right words in the right order sound true.”

It’s all about the music.

Sounds And Symmetry

When people talk about good writing, they mean it sounds good, sense comes second. As Forsyth says, there’s not much right about rain, and curiosity never killed a cat. Dickens himself debated whether there was anything especially dead about a doornail, a coffin-nail he thought maybe, but he stuck with the doornail anyway, because it sounded nice.

Another poet, a Welsh one this time, said:

Now, as I was the author of it, I happened to know at the time that this cywydd, though absolutely correct according to the rules of strict metre, was also a load of nonsense. But it had an immediate, sometimes very emotional, effect on audiences. I now realise that it is the most profound poem I’ve ever written. And here is an analysis of the first eight lines. Spelling is neither hear nor their, of course. It’s the sound that counts.

Twm Morys, Address to Brunel College

So, in our Deliberate Practice For Authors, I mainly focus on sound and rhythm

I am interested in prosody. There are two schools of prosody: the linguistic and the literary. I am not uninterested in phonology—in fact, I studied phonology and philology with Twm Morys years ago in Aberystwyth, in Welsh: seineg and ieitheg.

As far as Deliberate Practice for Authors is concerned, I am here more interested in the literary ideas of prosody, so metre, rhythm, repetition and sound.

These marry into the “Flowers of Rhetoric”, though primarily rhetoric is the art of persuasion and only secondarily the word-music that persuades.

Another ‘must get’ book is Sam Leith’s ‘You Talkin’ To Me?’, which in North America has the much better title ‘Words Like Loaded Pistols’.

I have a page that lists the books that I have found helpful, and there’s another page about rhetorical devices and yet another page about sentence construction.

Deliberate Practice For Authors: How Do I Do It?

Others may do it differently, but every day, usually in the morning before I go to work, I copy out the beginning of a story by a well-regarded author. I do it by hand with a fountain pen onto nice paper. It’s a bit of a ritual.

I don’t like all of the writers I read. I think some of them are rubbish, but I do it anyway. I’m trying to learn why they are considered good authors.

I then read the writing out loud and speak it out loud, trying to understand what about it makes it good. It may be plain, and it may be clear, and that’s all well and good, and sometimes, often, plain clear language is good writing. But sometimes plain clear writing is on the back of my washing-up detergent, and that isn’t generally regarded the home of prose style.

At the end of the argument, it seems to me that good writing is writing that sounds good, not necessarily writing that means well.

Sound and Symmetry

What makes words sound good is pretty much what makes music sound good: rhythm and departure from that rhythm. Repetition of metrical patters (metrical feet), repetition of words and word groups, repetition of consonants (alliteration) and of vowels (rhyme and assonance) delight the ear. And also, symmetry: things that rise in threes sound good:

“Friends, Romans, Countrymen!” (from Shakespeare’s Julius Caeser)

Things that are paired also sound nice.

“Sound and fury.” (from Shakespeare’s MacBeth)

“The lost and the damned.” (from Grand Theft Auto)

The symmetry of opposition is pleasant:

“Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” (JFK’s speech)

And antithesis simply rocks:

“The difference between literature and journalism is that journalism is unreadable and literature is not read.” Oscar Wilde.

Sentence Structure

Joe Moran’s book First Write A Sentence is great on this, very clear it is, very good. Put the important items at the end of the sentences, he says.

Joe Moran discusses Periodic Sentences as a particular arrangement of clauses.

Mark Forsyth also talks about these. The Periodic Sentence was the big deal in Classical literature. You pile up clauses and delay the main verb so that as your listener hears each clause he (or she) begins to form an idea about what the hell you’re talking about, but she (or he) doesn’t actually know till you land the verb and then the period. Full stop!

Herman Melville does this at the start of Moby Dick

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. 

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Melville sets you up with all the ‘whenever’ clauses, but you have to wait until the end to see what he actually does whenever he feels that way.

The opposite way round is what Joe Moran calls the Senecan amble. In this type of sentence you set out your main clause telling your reader from the outset what you will be talking about, then you elaborate and enrich the main clause with successive dependent clauses, or at least additional clauses.

“The radiators put out lots of heat, too much, in fact, and old-fashioned sounds and smells came with it, exhalations of the matter that composes our own mortality, and reminiscent of the intimate gases we all diffuse.”

Saul Bellow, More Die of Heartbreak

My Pet Project

I have developed my own annotation, which I keep trying to perfect. I admit it isn’t yet there.

When I’m engaged in deliberate practice for authors, my annotation [ ] designates a sentence, and __ underscore an independent clause. An empty set of round brackets ( ) is a dependent clause.

I did toy with trying to show the different kinds of sub-clauses in the annotation, but it seemed ultimately that whether it was prepositional or participial didn’t make too much difference to the rhythm of the sentence, which is what I was trying to explore.

But even after just saying the type of clause makes no difference, I hesitate, because there is something somewhat slinky about clauses with progressive participles:

…showing….lying…flying…dying…

So maybe the clause type does have a bearing. This is a work in progress.

In my increasingly insane-looking system, a conjunction is *, while a relative pronoun is >, and a fragment is !.

It’s all to try and show the rhythm. Think a train shunting: long, short, stop, long again.

In my annotation Periodic Sentences look like this:

[( ), ( ), ( ), ( ), ___ .]

Whereas a Senecan Amble (reminds me of that song Spanish Stroll), which is also called ‘A Cumulative Sentence’ would be:

[ ___ ( ), ( ), ( ).]

What you soon see is that authors vary hugely in their sentence rhythm. So, Hemingway with his parataxic tendencies:

“In the morning I walked down the Boulevard to the rue Soufflot for coffee and brioche. It was a fine morning. The horse-chestnut trees in the Luxembourg gardens were in bloom. There was the pleasant early-morning feeling of a hot day. I read the papers with the coffee and then smoked a cigarette. The flower-women were coming up from the market and arranging their daily stock. Students went by going up to the law school, or down to the Sorbonne. The Boulevard was busy with trams and people going to work.” Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

[( ) __ ( *).]

[ __. ]

[ __ .]

[ __ .]

[ __ * ( ) .]

[ __ * ( ).]

[ __ ( ), * ( ).]

[ __ ( ).]

Sometimes, I put the word count in.

[ (3) 5 (8)]

[5]

[9]

[10]

[ 7 (5)]

Understand, I am trying to get a picture of why this writing is good, and I figure it must be something to do with the rhythm!

On the other hand, Ray Russel’s Sardonicus has a different pattern, and I also think it’s good!

The gentleman before me was the victim of some terrible affliction that had caused his lips to be pulled perpetually apart from each other, baring his teeth in a continuous ghastly smile. It was the same mirthless grin I had seen once before: on the face of a person in the last throes of lockjaw. We physicians have a name for that chilling grimace, a Latin name, and as it entered my mind, it seemed to dispel yet another mystery, for the term we use to describe the lockjaw smile is: risus sardonicus. A pallor approaching phosphorescence completed his astonishing appearance.

Ray Russell, Sardonicus

[ __ > __ ( ) , ( ) .]

[ __ ( ) : ( ) ( ).]

[ __ , ( ) , * ( ) , __ , ( :). ]

[ __ ]

I sometimes wonder whether annotating the work in this way helps understand the rhythm. I think it does, but on first glance the annotation may make things more complicated.

My ear knows that sentence rhythm plays an important part in the euphony of a sentence. For example, long cumulative sentences with polysyndentous tendencies that are suddenly followed by a short three-word sentence like a bark, sound wonderful.

You can do it the other way round too. A brief sentence followed by a long sentence that meanders on replete with clauses like a river in the soft southlands sounds pleasing too.

I haven’t even begun to discuss metre here. How iambs and trochees in prose are heard, even if they weren’t intended, though the clever writers probably do intend them to be heard.

This is a work in progress. I need to find a method to abstract what exactly makes a string of words sound nice. The annotation is an attempt to make the rhythm visible as well as audible.

My plan is to keep doing this deliberate practice until it makes sense. That’s my deliberate practice for authors anyway. Other versions are clearly on offer, and have been for centuries.

It’s not all algorithms that help you work this out. Mostly, it’s ears.

…Nicholas Tomalin, in his advice to neophyte journalists, pointed out that you got high marks for style if you just alternated long sentences with short ones.

Joe Moran, First You Write A Sentence

Style is a very simple matter; it is all 
rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. 

Virginia Woolf