ubject-Verb-Object. Repeat after me, Subject-Verb-Object.
That’s what my professor tells me when I ask her how to avoid awkward passages in my writing.
“Write like you’re speaking to a friend,” she says.
It seems easy enough: Subject-Verb-Object to produce short declarative sentences.
I’m in journalism school. More specifically, I’m in a content-based journalism program that focuses on arts and culture. That means we’re reading about post-modernism, about history, about the emergence of museums. We’re studying subcultures while attending art festivals taking architectural tours. We’re being shoved up against the “creative process.”
The idea is for us to watch, listen, ingest, digest, marinate, and then write — or try to write, to connect the art we see with personal perception by stringing together sentences (Subject-Verb-Object), and doing it all as fast and intelligently as possible.
It’s hard. It’s exciting. And it also reveals a hidden truth: that writing isn’t uniform. There’s writing and there’s writing. That is, there’s “writerly” writing (literary and political reviews) and Subject-Verb-Object writing, blue-collar grunt work prose that The New Yorker might smirk at.
I struggle with this.
Wanting to use my recently acquired knowledge and take a more highbrow approach to a subject doesn’t blend in well with an insistence on remembering the lessons of third-grade grammar. It can seem like a soup of vegetables and strawberries. It can also challenge basic writing faith.
American writer and editor E.B. White once said, “Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.”
White’s witty essays and children’s books reflected the devotion of someone who not had faith but also knew how to invest that faith with creative aplomb. He was no stranger to the highbrow but he mostly kept it simple.
White always acknowledged his deep admiration for his Cornell grammar professor, William Strunk, Jr., who wrote the first version of in “The Elements of Style,” which White tenderly revised and enlarged. Grammar mattered. So did the tricks of precision, of commas, tense, dangling modifiers — all of which can seem very boring. Yet they were, and are, the foundation of the writing faith, its bedrock.
Lately, I’ve debated the relationship between creative flair and mechanics. Which one, I ask myself, is more important in learning the craft of writing. I must confess that mechanics are winning, at least for now, smacking my more writerly voice into submission.
Writing is structure. Writing can be art. But it can’t be art without structure.
Therein lies the challenge, and the one I face daily: to take something abstract and to simplify it, to clarify it, without “dumbing down”; to present it engagingly without offending the aspirations of art itself. Writing’s aim is to explain art, and therefore give it greater meaning. But art itself seeks meaning, which can make the task hard.
Repeat after me, Subject-Verb-Object.
I look at a sentence I wrote in a piece about cooking, which reads: “It is this approach and mindset that has guided Wissler.”
I replace it with: “This is how Wissler thinks.
I look at another one: “The performance piece addresses the personal and political effects of urban renewal and the impact of 1960s urban design in Chicago.”
I pause, reflect on mechanics and simplicity, and rewrite: “The subject of the piece is how people of all kinds were affected by urban renewal in Chicago of the 1960s.”
“Asserting that one must first know the rules to break them, this classic reference is a must-have for any student and conscientious writer.” That was Strunk’s opening sentence in his 1918 in his preface to the original “The Elements of Style.”
The pamphlet was 45-pages long. The preface took up 66 words. Sixty-six. Each of them is correctly spelled.
I am in journalism school, yes, but I’m also in place where rule No. 1 isn’t putting down what you feel about something, but making sense of what you think. That’s art.