I very much enjoy reading my friend Sana’s blog. Working as her editor, I think especially carefully about her use of language, looking for not just the little corrections here and there but moreso looking for the beautiful tools that come naturally to her. As with my students, my goal is to point out everything well that she does and to teach her the pattern of her natural style, her own voice. As a teacher I believe it is much more important for a student to be able to explain what they know and what they are doing right—than it is for a student to see red marks and corrections all over the paper.

Only by knowing what we are doing right—and why—can we hope to build our skills. Sure, people who write do need to internalize grammar rules, and they would do equally well to learn the conventions, too— if only to know when to break them.

(By the way, one distinction: grammar rules are hard and fast, based on logic; conventions are aspects of style to which people have agreed but that may be broken with poetic license. For example: it will always be illogical to pair a singular noun with a plural pronoun—i.e. “Everyone needs their daily chocolate.” “Everyone” is singular, while “their” is plural. Never may one person suddenly BA-ZING! become two or more in a sentence—this will always be wrong, by logic. Conventions, on the other hand, might include the old English teacher mottoes “Never begin a sentence with and!” or “Don’t use colloquialisms!” or “No sentence fragments!” Well, we know of writers who break conventions all the time and do it with panache. Grammar vs. conventions).

So Sana hears quite a bit from me with respect to all that she does right. By now she knows that her strengths include her use of imagery and metaphor, as well as her precise use of diction to characterize the people she describes. She has a friendly, authoritative tone which she intersperses with wry humor. She has a natural ear for parallel structure (both within a single sentence and within paragraphs as a whole). Her organization of her writing never falters. She is structured and logical as well as empathetic and descriptive—everything you could want as a reader when looking to connect to a writer.

The other day she suggested that some of my positive feedback sometimes comes as a surprise to her. If I fulfill my job as a teacher, then there should come a joyful day when she is no longer surprised. Now, yes, some writers by their very nature will always be a bit surprised—it is hard to break a student totally of authentic humility, and who would want to? It is pleasing when a writer is not over-confident and still has a thrill at discovering her own ability to connect with people, as if by magic. But by “no longer surprised” what I really mean is this: there will come a day when she will be able to talk with me about the intention of her crafting and she will know that what she does is effective…and, most importantly (drum roll please) WHY.

Last night, Sana wrote a blog discussing some of the signs of domestic abuse. She wrote in the first paragraph:

Alexandria (Alex) was crying a lot.  She was trying to divorce her husband but he wouldn’t leave.  He wouldn’t speak.  He only yelled.  He yelled at her, alone, in front of their kids, in the morning, when he came home from work, he yelled.  And he never spoke to her any more.  It’s been weeks since they spoke. When I asked her if she thought she was abused, she said, “No.  He’s never hit me.”

Check out the fifth sentence:

He yelled at her, alone, in front of their kids, in the morning, when he came home from work, he yelled.

This sentence is all Sana, and it is all good. Her syntax is brilliant—look how she bookends the sentence with “he yelled” to represent the constant presence of the husband’s loud berating. The structure of this sentence parallels Alexandria’s life: surrounded by yelling—whether alone, with her kids, in the morning, or when her husband comes home. In fact, it gets even better. If we were adhering to strict conventions, one imagines a period going in after “work.” The verb “yelled” has already been used in the first clause; the sentence does not require a second verb; it is not a compound sentence. The fact that Sana uses another verb (the power, the action of any sentence) at the end of the sentence—making it almost stream-of-consciousness or a run-on—achieves something amazing. She quite literally weighs the sentence down with the second verb, giving the sentence additional weight when we definitely expect it to have no more. By heavy-handedly giving us this second verb, Sana represents through syntax (sentence structure) the weight of the yelling on Alexandria, the crushing feeling, the heavy boxed-in-ness.

Yes, I love everything about this sentence. Did Sana craft it with this intention? Well, that is for her as the writer to know. Did Fitzgerald know the every possible interpretation of all his sentences when he wrote them? Did Hawthorne? Dickinson? The point is that she now knows for sure now how well that sentence works. It is one to write down and keep in a notebook where one writes down and keeps the best of the best for later use or as models or as inspirations for another day.

It is often helpful to have a second set of eyes on one’s writing…not just for the picky grammar stuff, but to tell you what you are doing well and why.

Gather joy in your strengths, and let others help you to know what those are.

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