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Writing Room: The Punch Line Always Goes Last

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

Everyone knows that the punch line goes at the end of a joke, not the beginning. A mystery writer knows to set the story up and get all the necessary events and clues in place before revealing that the pizza delivery guy did it.

The same is true of a paragraph and a sentence. When writing a paragraph or sentence, give your readers the information they need in the order they need it. For example, if you have a headache and you are asking your housemate to please get you an aspirin from the bathroom, you don’t say, “It’s on the bottom shelf, in the cupboard next to the sink, in the bathroom, upstairs.”

You would give your housemate – and your reader – the information one chronological or logical step at a time. You’d say, “The aspirin is in the upstairs bathroom, in the cupboard next to the sink, on the bottom shelf.” Wouldn’t you?

Author Lindsey Crittenden

Author Lindsey Crittenden

Sentences can benefit from the same kind of orderliness. Let them flow logically. One of the two sentences below is lifted from Lindsey Crittenden’s  memoir, The Water Will Hold You: A Skeptic Learns to Pray (Harmony Books). The other one is not.

Which one feels clean and logical? Which one sends you scrambling to read the sentence all over again, now that you’ve learned what the point is?

“How do you think that makes me feel?” she wailed when I admitted that I’d thought of suicide.

When I admitted that I’d thought of suicide, she wailed. “How do you think that makes me feel?”

The second sentence is from Crittenden. The first sentence is my doing. (And my apologies to Lindsey for changing the tense in both sentences, just a wee bit.) Notice how the quotation, when it’s placed at the beginning of the sentence has no meaning until the reader finishes the sentence. This sentence requires the reader to go back and forth, rereading and doing way too much work, work that is your job as the writer. You want it to be your job, because if a reader has to stop to figure out the meaning of a sentence, he or she is likely to quit reading. I call this writing error “putting the cart before the horse.”

I’d love it if you would share any cart-before-the-horse examples you come across in your reading, especially the funny ones. We can all learn from them.

All this brings to mind some wonderful advice from the novelist and writing teacher John Gardner. I don’t have the exact quote at my fingertips. It goes something like this: Good writing is a dream from which the reader does not wake. Clumsy sentences and paragraphs (like the ones I wrote above) cause readers to wake up from the dream – and close the book we’ve worked so hard to write.

Gardner says it better than that. Who can help me find the exact quote?

Want to read more about writing, check out my post on craft journals.

 

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