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Improving Your Writing Style: Read Widely

As far as English grammar and usage go, we learn a lot from spotting and correcting other people’s errors. But we learn just as much from well-written prose when we relish the reading experience and ask ourselves, “Why was that such a pleasure?” A recent article about outer space in a recent NY Times Sunday Magazine (12.11.16 by Chris Jones) was that kind of experience, illustrated in the passage below.

“The vastness of space almost defies conventional measures of distance. Driving the speed limit to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star grouping to the sun, would take 50 million years or so; our fastest current spacecraft would make the trip in a relatively brisk 73,000 years. The next-nearest star is six light-years away. To rocket across our galaxy would take about 23,000 times as long as a trip to Alpha Centauri, or 1.7 billion years, and the Milky Way is just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies.

The Hubble Space Telescope once searched a tiny fragment of the night sky, the size of a penny held at arm’s length, that was long thought by astronomers to be dark. It contained 3,000 previously unseen points of light. Not 3,000 new stars – 3,000 new galaxies. And in all those galaxies, orbiting around some large percentage of each of their virtually countless stars: planets. Planets like Neptune, planets like Mercury, planets like Earth.”

 

I found the article fascinating for its content and equally for the author’s fluid style. My suggestion is to intentionally adopt three of his writing techniques, whenever appropriate, to elevate our own prose and improve our readers’ experience.

  1. Vary the sentence length. The nine sentences in this 160-word passage move rhythmically between longer sentences (31-35 words) and shorter ones 8-10 words --  the average being 17.8 words (close to the recommended average of 17-20 words). Note that longer sentences contain background information and context, and shorter sentences pack a punch. About the star assumed to be dark, we discover in 8 words that “It contained 3,000 previously unseen points of light.” 
  2. Second, despite admonitions to write complete sentences, it’s OK to employ an occasional fragment for effect. Although grammatically incomplete, a well-placed fragment causes readers to focus on a key idea; the missing subject or verb, rather than limiting comprehension, actually expands it. “Not 3,000 new stars – 3,000 new galaxies.” 
  3. Which brings us to a third point: Use repetition to reinforce a point. In the effort to make us speculate about the unknowable, the author asks us to imagine an infinite number of stars, planets and galaxies – “Planets like Neptune, planets like Mercury, planets like Earth.” The repetition underscores the amazing galactic possibilities and sparks the imagination.

Indeed, reading widely and well does more than expand our minds. The habit has the potential to improve our writing style as well.

Have you been stimulated by a well-written article?  I invite you to share the source and your experience.

Last Updated on Monday, 09 January 2017 08:38
 

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Unless otherwise attributed, all material is written and edited by Susan B. Kline. Copyright © Susan B. Kline 2011. All Rights Reserved. I invite you to reprint material from this website for educational purposes, provided this copyright notice ("Written and edited by Susan B. Kline, © Susan B. Kline [year]. All Rights Reserved.") and a link to sbkline.com is included in the credits.

 

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