Write a Sentence as Clean as a Bone
by Writing Workshops Staff
10 months ago
I am a fan of diction.
I am a fan of diction because I feel like it’s something I can control. There is so much in this world that is out of our control (clearly), and there is so much in the stories we write that can feel out of control. Where is the plot going? Is there a plot? Is this character developing in a substantial and interesting way? Does this dialogue sound stunted and/or clichéd? Writing is hard.
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine was slogging through an early draft of her novel and came to me for advice. Working under deadline, she was unsure as to whether or not the story was “working,” and she sourly admitted to me that she was losing the joy. Unless you are some kind of creative genius and an amazingly positive person, you can perhaps relate to my friend.
Not every part of the writing process is joyful. Much of it is terrible! But, in the effort to help, I found myself telling her that if she was losing joy in the work as a whole, maybe she could go back and find joy on the sentence-level.
I am going to be the person who now will quote James Baldwin. James Baldwin once said, “You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone.” I think about this all the time because if at a certain point, magic isn’t happening in my story, I can probably make the magic happen in a sentence or two. This feels extremely gratifying.
The right word, or the right deletion of the word, can break open a character. It can pin down the tone. It makes you, the author, masterful and trustworthy. For me, finding the right couple of words (“honey sky,” for example, rather than “slightly murky sky that reminded me of the color of summer sand mixed with raw honey”) will make my entire day. The ability to do this type of thing (re)convinces me that I am actually a writer and that, if I can string together two good words, I can string together seventy-some-thousand.
Yes, you can power through a draft, writing whatever you want in order to reach the end. I am not that person. I edit as I go, and then I edit again and again. And yes, sometimes your edits will be big and bold and will spin your entire story into an entirely new direction. But I think you can spin a story in an entirely new direction by choosing words that are true and necessary. Or, like I said before, a deletion (or several) can work wonders.
I do my best work when I am meticulous and surgeon-like—stripping the flesh, finding the bones. If you’re feeling stuck or have lost the joy in your work, do as James Baldwin says. Try a sentence-level edit and see where it takes you. You might be surprised.
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BIO: Samantha Mabry is the author of A FIERCE AND SUBTLE POISON (Algonquin Young Readers, spring 2016), ALL THE WIND IN THE WORLD, a Western, published in the fall of 2017 and nominated for the National Book Award for Young Peoples' Literature. TIGERS, NOT DAUGHTERS was released in the spring of 2020. It received six starred trade reviews and was the winner of both the Reading the West award and Writers' League of Texas award.