Today I’ve been thinking about sentences and how to mangle them.
In my experience the majority of sentence mangling occurs when writers aren’t sure about what they are doing. I teach from time to time and come across quite a lot of mangling one way or another. Sometimes a student might write a fight scene but hasn’t visualised it properly so tries to describe several actions in the one sentence or a writer might want to explain some element of a character’s personality but aren’t entirely sure of what they want to say. Sometimes mangling occurs when someone wants to appear more erudite than their knowledge actually justifies, or when they have been told that they shouldn’t repeat the same word too often and raid the thesaurus for synonyms… always risky. Mangled sentences tend to accompany mangled thinking or maybe, for those of us who only think when we’re writing, mangled writing produces mangled thinking.
I’ve been speculating about the issue because I had to write an English essay for the first time in well over thirty years and my God, were my sentences mangled. Everything I’ve learned through writing fiction was forgotten in an instant and I was once more an intense, swotty teenager, constructing sentences of labyrinthine complexity, laying sub-clause on sub-clause, periphrasis on qualification, until the whole inelegant edifice collapsed under its own weight.
In the intervening years I have written business reports, reviews, young children’s stories and novels. I’ve written simple stories with limited vocabulary. I love short punchy sentences. I can’t explain why when faced with the prospect of writing an essay I panicked. I would like to say I reverted to type- only back in the day I did everything long hand and I think I actually thought in those dense, complex sentences because it was always easier to add a rider or another clause rather than start again, rethink and redraft. It is so easy to edit these days – so why did I forget how? It was as if like some character in one of my own novels I was actually magically transported back to 1979 and my days of wild hair, ink pens and overweening intellectual pretension. I swear I could hear the juke box strains of Santana’s ‘Samba pa ti’ weave their way through the sixth form common room of my memory. No wonder the essay was rubbish.
Still one should always learn from one’s mistakes and I suppose I learned several things from this humiliating endeavour: transferable skills aren’t always transferred, the past exerts a powerful pull on the present, I need to be more tolerant of students prolixity and I need to practise essay writing…