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Rated: E · Essay · Writing · #2144176
A way to improve your style and teach yourself about the styles of others.
The WDC editor eliminates my italics and other formatting; see the better version at my blog, https://alancarlnicoll.wordpress.com/.

I've just noticed that the editor removed my paragraph numbers; this makes nonsense of the worked example, so I've withdrawn it until/unless I can present it properly. I'll leave the introduction, because that's mostly unaffected.

The Subjective Microscope

A Technique for Writers

by Alan Carl Nicoll

Copyright 2017 by Alan Carl Nicoll, All Rights Reserved


The subjective microscope is my rather fanciful name for a rather obvious technique to teach oneself about writing style. I practiced it about ten times before I ever came up with a name for it.

I suggest trying this first in longhand on lined paper, primarily because that’s how I did it, but I also think that writing longhand encourages a slower, more thoughtful approach than typing.

If the following description is too tedious to read straight through, jump ahead to my example; the method will soon be apparent. Then come back to this section.

Take a book you like and find a paragraph that you like of eight or ten sentences. I like to select paragraphs of description, because writing descriptions is difficult for me. I also like to use the technique on the first paragraph of a novel, because these are usually worked on more than anything except the ending.

Copy the paragraph out into your chosen medium. Beneath that, recopy the first sentence. If the sentence is very long, break it up into convenient chunks, such as clauses. Then make observations about the sentence or first chunk and write them out. Write whatever interests you, there is no particular plan to follow; but I’ll offer a plan. In the following I will speak only of whole sentences.

Consider the structure and grammatical nature of the sentence: is it a fragment? Are there multiple clauses? How well do the parts work together? If there are pronouns, find the referent for each one and consider whether a reader might go astray in this identification? Readers will automatically assume that the possible referent closest before the pronoun is the correct referent—is it? Explain to yourself whatever you think is worth explaining. If you are uncertain about the sentence, figure out why; then try alterations to “fix the problem.”

Consider the most significant words, nouns and verbs and adjectives, and consider alternatives; write the sentence with different words, and compare them in your mind. Consider how many words, and which words, can be eliminated without destroying the sentence altogether. Write those shortened sentences. Do they seem to you more vigorous? Do they read faster? Are they better, or is something lost by shortening?

Consider the sounds of the individual words, and the sounds as they occur in the sentence. Is there a cacophony or a harmony? What is the rhythm of the sentence? Does the rhythm make sense compared to the surface meaning of the sentence?

If you broke a sentence into convenient chunks, reconsider them again as parts of the original sentence. Would they work better or be more effective in some way if they were combined differently, or broken into two or more sentences? Also, would combining the original sentences into fewer, longer forms be a good idea? Play with these changes.

Of the alternative sentences you’ve come up with, do you like any better than the original sentence? Tinker with it some more. When you’ve done all you can stand with the first sentence, then proceed to the second, and so on through the paragraph. Then reread the whole paragraph and see if your work has given you some new insights; if so, write them down. Do you like the order of the sentences in the paragraph? What is the overall plan, if any? Is there variation in length, structure, subject-verb order, or something else? Write down any observations which you find surprising or interesting.

And that’s about it. This is not a technique I use all the time; indeed, I used it intensively only for about two weeks, as I had time and energy. But I thought it the most valuable exercise I’ve ever done, to make me a better, more thoughtful writer.

For the worked example, see my blog.
© Copyright 2017 Alan Carl Nicoll (alancarlnicoll at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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