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Was Not Beautiful is Beautiful

Here’s an invaluable way to help you learn how to write: read. When someone knows how to write, you see it in every sentence—if you know how to look. Before we look at a beautiful sentence, let’s read some not-so-beautiful ones:

Claudette O’Halloran was just an okay-looking woman. Even so, a lot of men thought she was kind of interesting. Especially the Hampton twins.

You’ll probably agree that the example above is a rather drab set of sentences. They’re readable, and the reader gets what the reader is trying to say, but the sentences aren’t written to catch the reader so much as they are simply giving the reader the run-down on Claudette. Now read an elegant, single-sentence version:

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. 

Why is the second example miles above the first in terms of writing elegance? First of all, remember that commas and full stops do different things. The first example is terse, straightforward, and a bit clunky. Generally speaking, short sentences are great for action and for increasing tension, but for descriptions, thoughts, and ideas, unfurl the sails with commas instead. Note that while Margaret Mitchell has a comma after “beautiful” (in order to avoid a fused sentence), she did not use a comma after “charm”—though she could have. Commas are great for ensuring that things don’t get confusing (find out more about commas here), but in Mitchell’s case, she knows she can dispense with the second comma because she’s going from a general example (“men”) to a specific one (“Tarleton twins”), and there’s no place for the reader to get confused about the meaning.

Notice also how verbs are being used in the two examples. I’ve used “Was just okay-looking” and “was kind of interesting” to show how drab, wishy-washy descriptors can drag a sentence down. Mitchell, on the other hand, grabs the reader by making a negative opening statement about her lead character that intrigues the reader. Saying that someone “was just okay looking,” is a confirming statement, and dismissive, and as I noted before, ending the sentence there means that’s what the reader is left with as a first impression. On the other hand, “was not beautiful” implies the existence of other attributes, and combined with the comma, “not beautiful, but…” leads the reader forward into what happens to men in general around Scarlett (and what happens to the Tarleton twins in particular).

Next, look at the names. I picked “Claudette” to highlight what names do in a reader’s mind. The sound of “Claud” in “Claudette” reminds the reader of the word “clod” which means a dull person. “Scarlett” on the other hand, references the color of blood, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter as well. Take note! Authors do not typically pick names at random. Have you heard of Katniss Everdeen? Katniss is a species of Sagittaria plant, and translates as “archer.” Hermione Granger? Hermione is the female version of Hermes, who is known as the god of magic. Dickens, of course, is noted for his character names. Just as one a famous example, the noun “scrooge,” meaning a mean-spirited cheapskate, comes from the name of Dickens’ lead character in A Christmas Carol. In other words, Dickens’ names are so descriptive, we’ve made some into nouns!

Writers are doing themselves a favor by reading good books. We learn from input, and the better the input, the better our own output. Read as a writer—look for what that writer does that makes her or his writing high-quality work. Think about how she or he puts sentences together, and paragraphs, and chapters. Think about the character names, and how the characters are described. The deeper you dive into other writers’ works, the better the treasure you’ll bring up to share with your own readers.

Looking for more tips? Here’s what’s up so far. More to come!

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