A Matter of Style: How you say what you say

typewriter-OnceUponATimeOnce upon a time and long, long ago (a few decades back) in a frozen country far, far away (southeast Michigan) business writing was coming out of the fog (there was a push to eliminate unnecessary words and phrasing). Gobbledygook and doublespeak (it WAS around 1984) was out and succinct writing was in. During this time I was an undergrad majoring in English and was instructed to “replace every ‘which’ with ‘that’ and then cut every ‘that’ possible.” While my professor had good intentions, this is so very wrong!

Still, his advice had an impact on my writing style. An author’s voice and style evolves out of sentence structure. It’s related to your word choice and sentence length. In simple terms, how  you say what you say. This is one of the most difficult aspect for my writing students to grasp (whether they’re elementary at-risk learners, college students, or budding freelance writers). There is no single, correct way to convey an idea. Instead, we have a multitude of options to get our thoughts across in writing.

While my college professor did help me learn to write succinctly, the question on when (or whether) to use ‘that’ or ‘which’ is an issue of clarity. Each word has a purpose dependent on whether the clause the word is a part of is necessary–or optional–to the meaning of the sentence. Clauses (a group of words with their own subject and verb) add to a base sentence and provide more information. If the information is optional, use ‘which’. If the information is essential, use ‘that’. For example:

Claire selected a green blouse to wear with the grey skirt.
Claire selected a green blouse, which had white buttons, to wear with the grey skirt.
The green blouse that complemented Claire’s eyes made the outfit memorable.

The first sentence is the base sentence. In the second sentence, the clause added to the base sentence is optional. While it adds to the information about Claire and her outfit, it can be removed without being missed. The third sentence expands on the idea behind the first sentence. It includes a clause that offers additional but necessary information about the rest of the sentence; if this clause is removed, we do not understand why the outfit would be memorable. It is an essential clause.

Bonus tip:
Note that commas surround the non-essential clause: Claire selected a green blouse, which had white buttons, to wear with the grey skirt. Whenever you can remove a clause from the sentence without losing meaning, the clause should be “cradled by commas.” If removing the clause would make the sentence less meaningful or confusing, do not use commas to separate it from the rest of the sentence.

So, when we receive advice to write tightly, it’s not about changing ‘which’ to ‘that’ and then eliminating ‘that.’ It’s about getting your thoughts across with only the words needed. Whenever my college students ask how long their story, essay, article, or research paper should be, my answer is, “As long as is necessary to convey your point.” It’s really a matter of style.

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Writing is Like an Iceberg

icebergOnly the writer knows all that lies beneath the surface.

As northern weather begins to cool, the mention of icebergs may feel like hitting below the belt; however, it really is the best analogy for crafting a solid story or informational article.

For nonfiction, a great deal of research goes into every article, and more so for a book. The writer cannot possibly share every fact and thought about the topic, though. The goal is to share information and insight, not overwhelm the reader. When I research for a nonfiction book, perhaps 75 percent of the research ends up in the finished product, sometimes less. Yet the percent “unused” is not wasted; it is essential to my understanding of the topic and so it is “present” beneath the surface.

The same is true for fiction. Though the author may not need to conduct research (unless writing historical fiction or centering around a real event) there is still a great deal of information, planning, and thought that goes into a novel or even a short story. Everything the writer knows about the characters’ personalities, back stories, relationships (past and present), events that shaped the “person,” how the characters act and react (and why), and even their futures is important to the story. Yet only a small percentage of that information is provided to the reader. (In comparison to my nonfiction, when I write fiction, perhaps 25 percent of research and background goes into the story.) The majority of all the writer knows is below the waterline, providing a foundation for what appears above the water. The reader must become engaged with the small portion visible.

King-good-booksjpgThis is one of the hardest concepts for new writers to understand, especially when writing fiction. This is also where the “show; don’t tell” rule-of-thumb arises. Inexperienced writers want to provide every detail about a character, want to ensure the reader “gets” what they have created, and want to be recognized for being clever. As they gain more experience, they realize that writers can reveal a lot and hint at plenty of background without sharing every detail and nuance of a character’s history or personality.

Truly, holding something back and providing hints at a character’s past makes the story more engaging. If the foundation is there, the story will stay afloat. Keep icebergs in mind as you write–and trust your ability to reveal details as needed for the reader to understand each moment in the story (scene by scene).