6 Tips and Examples For Writing Long Sentences Worth Reading

Long sentences may be confusing. Too many ideas, details, and modifiers can make it difficult for readers to follow your story. However, long sentences are necessary if you want your writing to have a desirable rhythm. You cannot fill your work with only short punchy sentences. If you’re going to be a well-balanced writer, you must learn how to master long sentences. 

Yes, there is a common criticism that nobody wants to read long sentences, but cutting things down is not always better. Great writing consists of sentences of all lengths. Today, I’ll share six pieces of advice and examples of how long sentences can be applied to your writing.  

1. Place the subject and verb of the main clause early in the sentence.

He looked at me and held out his hand, sending black ribbons of darkness climbing through the sphere, twisting and turning. I grew the light wider and brighter, feeling the pleasure of the power move through me, letting it play through my fingertips as he sent inky tendrils of darkness shooting through the light, making them dance. – Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo (p 217)

Want to write better? Check out this video here: How to Write Clearly with Right Branching Sentences.

2. When describing something long and slow, use a long sentence. 

It rained all night. I had a horrible, sleepless time of it. It was noisy. On the rain catcher the rain made a drumming sound, and around me, coming from the darkness beyond, it made a hissing sound, as if I were at the centre of a great nest of angry snakes. 

Shifts in the wind changed the directions of the rain so that parts of me that were beginning to feel warm were soaked anew. I shifted the rain catcher, only to be unpleasantly surprised a few minutes later when the wind changed once more. 

I tried to keep a small part of me dry and warm, around my chest, where I had placed the survival manual, but the wetness spread with perverse determination. I spent the whole night shivering with cold. – Life of Pi by Yann Martel (p173)

Photo by Super Snapper on Unsplash

3. Write the long sentence in chronological order. 

It’s in the newspaper today how somebody broke into offices between the tenth and fifteenth floors of the Hein Tower, and climbed out the office windows, and painted the south side of the building with a grinning five-story mask, and set fires so the window at the center of each huge eye blazed huge and alive and inescapable over the city at dawn. – Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (p 118)

How did Fight Club go from book to movie? Check out this article here: The Adaptation of Fight Club

4. Accompany long sentences with medium and short ones.

My proximity to the Careers’ camp sharpens my senses, and the closer I get to them, the more guarded I am, pausing frequently to listen for unnatural sounds, an arrow already fitted into the string of my bow. I don’t see any other tributes, but I do notice some of the things Rue has mentioned. Patches of the sweet berries. A bush with leaves that healed my stings. Clusters of tracker jacker nest in the vicinity of the tree I was trapped in. And here and there, the black-and-white flash of a mockingjay wing in the branches high over my head. – The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (p 214)

5. A long sentence can be used for listing products, names, and images. 

Chani stood over him now, looking down on the soft beard of youth that framed his face, tracing with her eyes the high browline, the strong nose, the shuttered eyes — the features so peaceful in this rigid repose. – Dune by Frank Herbert (p 716)

6. Editing matters more with long sentences. Make every word count. 

One of the major difficulties Trillian experienced in her relationship with Zaphod was learning to distinguish between him pretending to be stupid just to get people off their guard, pretending to be stupid because he couldn’t be bothered to think and wanted someone else to do it for him, pretending to be outrageously stupid to hide the fact that he actually didn’t understand what was going on, and really being genuinely stupid. – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (p85)

Which long-sentence tip will you practice writing first? Let me know in the comments below. 

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Why Using Too Many “—ing” Words Hurts Your Writing 

The power of an ‘ing’ word is that it creates a progression of time. “The hero is flying over the city,” is more immediate than “The hero flies over the city” or “The hero flew over the city. “Ing” words have the ability to put readers right there in the moment. 

Take a look at this paragraph from Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea (Amazon)

There are 123 words in this paragraph and 6 of them are “ing” words. But what’s more important is where Hemingway positions them. They are close enough together that the “ing” words can almost echo off each other, building tension, but far enough away so that it’s not overdone. 

You see, “ing” words come with a price. First, “ing” inherently adds another syllable to your word which can affect the pacing. Secondly, if you overload a sentence with too many “ing” words too close together, the power of immediacy is dampened by the repetitiveness of the sound. 

Take a look at this sentence: 

Remembering her time climbing the steps, Jodie was listening to the paramedics upstairs suggesting removing her ailing father through the window. 

Six “ing” words appear in this 21-word sentence: 

We have “Remembering” a present participle, “Ailing” an adjective, “climbing”, “listening”, and “suggesting” as verbs tenses, and “removing” as a gerund. 

Grammatically, this sentence can pass, but you don’t need to read it too many times to identify the problem that the “ing” words cause. 

Like so much of life, moderation is key. By limiting the amount of ‘ing’ words within a time and space, you build tension with fluid pacing. It allows your words to stand out independently. 

Take a look at this revised passage:

Jodie remembered climbing the steps as the paramedics upstairs suggested removing her sickly father’s body through the window. 

We went from six “ing” words in a 21-word sentence to two “ing” words in an 18-word sentence. Now, some might call it a matter of taste, but the second version is objectively punchier, and dare I say, more dramatic. By swapping out “ing” words with words that end with “ed” or “ly”, and rephrasing certain ideas, you allow the sentence to flow smoothly. 

Keep an eye out and an ear open for those that are bunched together. Experiment with the spacing of these words and don’t ever feel trapped by your word choice, there is always a way to fix it. 

This article was inspired by the tip from Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark (Amazon).

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To Write Confidently, Cut These Out…

These are verb qualifiers: 

  • Sort of
  • Tend to
  • Kind of 
  • Must have 
  • Seemed to 
  • Could have 
  • Used to 
  • Begin to

They allow you to present a level of uncertainty for your character’s actions. Use them with caution, because verb qualifiers may only add little information and cause confusion.

When I’m writing action sequences, I simply ask myself: Did the characters do the action or did they not? 

Take a look at this modified paragraph from Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (Amazon): 

Chipper sort of fell silent. His eyes kind of went around and around his plate, but he must have not been provident and there was nothing on the plate but woe. He began to raise his glass and silently half urged a very small drop of warm milk down the slope to his mouth. He stretched his tongue out and seemed to welcome it. 

Notice how there is a lot of uncertainty in that paragraph? These little sprinklings of doubt spoil your credibility as the author and mess up the flow of your story. Take a look at the original version without any of the added verb qualifiers. 

Chipper fell silent. His eyes went around and around his plate, but he had not been provident and there was nothing on the plate but woe. He raised his glass and silently urged a very small drop of warm milk down the slope to his mouth. He stretched his tongue out to welcome it. 

Your first draft is often loaded with these verb qualifiers. This is understandable. You aren’t certain of every detail when you write the first draft. But now that you know how it all ends, be more confident and remove those pesky verb qualifiers and give a more assured image of the story. By removing them, you’ll see how much more clear and precise your writing becomes. 

Writing with confidence doesn’t mean your content needs to be bold or dramatic, it can be done by merely trimming off the excess that fog up the details. Don’t let your important words be overshadowed by verb qualifiers. Keep an eye out for them and cut them out. 

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How to Write Better Sentences and Paragraphs | The 2-3-1 Rule

The position of words in a sentence matters. Generally, you want to place the most important words or images at the end, so the idea hangs with the reader. Consider examining your work through the lens of The 2-3-1 Rule, where you have your most important part at the end, the second most important at the beginning, and the next most important information in the middle. 

Take this example and see how the order of words and images affect the tension of the story

The door was locked and after knocking two or three times he was sure the apartment was empty. He had rapped loud enough to make someone on the floor above rap back, like an exasperated ghost. But he would have to go in and make sure, and he didn’t have a key. He turned to go down the stairs to Mr. Freeman’s apartment, and that was when he heard the low groan from behind the door. The Stand, Stephen King

The 2-3-1 Rule is great for building suspense, but it can also be useful when you’re trying to evoke emotions such as fear, shock, and hopelessness: 

I was alone and orphaned, in the middle of the Pacific, hanging on to an oar, an adult tiger in front of me, sharks beneath me, a storm raging about me. Had I considered my prospect in the light of reason, I surely would have given up and let go of the oar, hoping that I might drown before being eaten. But I don’t recall that I had a single thought during those first minutes of relative safety. I didn’t even notice daybreak. I held on to the oar, I just held on, God only knows why. Life of Pi, Yann Martel

The 2-3-1 Rule can be used in many ways, regardless of what you’re writing. However, what I believe is the most powerful use of the rule is in misdirection and humour: 

For thousands more years the mighty ships tore across the empty wastes of space and finally dived screaming on to the first planet they came across — which happened to be the Earth — where due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was accidentally swallowed by a small dog. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

Have you tried The 2-3-1 Rule? Did you find it useful? Let me know in the comments below. 

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This article was inspired by the tip from Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark (Amazon)

How to Write Clearly: Right-branching Sentences

He replaced the receiver in its cradle without answering her, turned off the ringer, and pressed his face into the doorframe. 
– The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen

This is a right-branching sentence, where the subject and the verb are at the beginning. Right-branching sentences are great for guiding a reader through an idea with clarity and narrative energy.  

Check out this 76-word sentence: 

He’d solved the problem of family Christmas gifts on the last possible mailing day, when, in a great rush, he’d pulled old bargains and remainders off his bookshelves and wrapped them in aluminum foil and tied them up with red ribbon and refused to imagine how his nine-year-old nephew Caleb, for example, might react to an Oxford annotated edition of Ivanhoe whose main qualification as a gift was that it was still in its original shrink-wrap. 
– The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen (Amazon)

Because it began with the subject and verb, we were able to follow along through all the descriptions and details, without losing track of what the character was doing — solving the problem of family Christmas gifts. 

It’s common to keep the noun and verb separate. Many times, we’d begin by describing the subject and then moving to the verb much later on, but by separating subject and verb we increase the possibility of confusion. This delay in important information can be risky depending on the length and complexity of the sentence. 

However, you should not rely solely on right-branching sentences. By using a structure where the subject and verbs arrive at the end, aka a left-branching sentence, you create suspense. 

Here’s this one for example: 

Earlier in the day, while killing some hours by circling in blue ball-point ink over uppercase M in the front section of a month-old New York Times, Chip had concluded that he was behaving like a depressed person.
– The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen

Try putting your subject and verb in different spots in your sentence and see how that changes the clarity, tone, and pace of your writing. Feel free to share it in the comments below! 

This article was inspired by the tip from Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark (Amazon).

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How to Write a Scene When You Can’t Picture Everything

A shattered vase lies on the floor. Once beautiful pieces are now sharp and dangerous. The barefooted woman dares not move. 

When writing a story, you don’t need to have the whole scene figured out. To begin, start with an image, something that can ground your reader in a physical place: a shattered vase on the floor. Set the tone: Beautiful. Sharp. Dangerous. Finally, ask a question: Is the barefooted woman okay? 

From that point on, you have everything you need to keep going. You have a space to work in, a tone to follow, and a question to answer. 

There are two types of writers: Plotters and Pantsers. 

Plotters are writers who create a plan before starting. They have an outline, a blueprint, a set of characters, and a clear ending to reach. Plotters are architects. They want to know where every nail fits. Being a Plotter is great. They have a clear direction for their stories and tend to be less burdened by writer’s block. 

Pantsers, on the other hand, are those who write by the seat of their pants. Because there is no plan for the Pantsers to follow they can take their characters in any direction and with this flexibility, they encounter creative surprises and unexpected revelations. 

I find that a balance of both can be the most beneficial. These are the Plantsers. Someone who has an outline to get unstuck, while embracing surprises. 

So, while I may have an outline to tell me what to start writing about, how to actually start the scene is open to possibilities. Sometimes, I’ll have a scene that appears clearly in my head. I could close my eyes, do a three-sixty, and see every detail. All I have to do is pick a place — a description of the furniture, a smell in the air, a sound coming from the floor below — the choice is up to me. 

Other times, the scene is unclear. I know I need the characters to interact in this way to get the plot to the point where I need it to go, but the setting, the tone, the atmosphere, the lighting, the fragrance of the season, all that is unclear. If none of those details are coming to the surface, don’t worry. Focus on the one thing you see, because all you need is one thing to start. It could be the clenching of a character’s fist. Or it could be the words “I hate you!” coming from a character’s mouth. Whatever’s the first image you have, go with it. 

Once you have that first image that’s where the writing fun begins. Like a seed, your story will grow roots below, sprout upward, and blossom out. Your first image will put you on course to creating the tone. Fist clenched. “I Hate You!” This story is starting in an angry place and the question sparks: Who’s fighting? 

No matter how much you prepare, there will always come a scene where the details may be a bit blurry or the character’s motivations aren’t completely clear. What you do then is find that image. This image can be as small as a crack on the floor or as big as a collapsing star. Once you focus on a singular point, your imagination can expand out from there.

It’s hard to translate what seems so picture-perfect in our brain onto paper. But hey — we might not need to. To do so may hurt our story. Even if a Plotter has every detail figured out, putting it all in words can lead to a story being unnecessarily weighed down. That’s why I like to blur the focus of my imagination as I start writing. I know enough to know where I need to take the story, but how I get there, what details of the scene I choose to focus on, that’ll only become clear as I write. 

The image, the tone, and a question to be answered, everything else will surprise you. 

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What is Crude Writing?

Frank works at a firm but he really wants to write the next great classic — and he has just the story. But why is he struggling to get his work published? 

True. He believes that once the first draft is written, he’s 80% done, perhaps a little bit of proofreading is needed, but the agency and publishing house will deal with that. After all, the idea is great! 

Alas, no responses. In a moment of (what he considered) weakness, he allows his coworker to read his work. “I like the story,” says his coworker, “but the writing, it’s a bit crude.” 

Crude!? How dare he criticize his work… his style… his self-expression. “Yes… there might be some typos,” says Frank returning to his desk, thinking: He wasn’t crude… He knew crude and his writing wasn’t crude. Crude was his friend Kyle.  

He recalls hanging with his old high school friends at an upscale restaurant where he frequents regularly. After a few drinks, one of her friends, Kyle, who had recently returned from Europe was boasting about all the adventures and sexual escapades he had. 

“Oh man! You should have seen the babes I was with. They were sexy, big tits, big ass, if you know what I mean…” Kyle made some grotesque gestures — Frank understood what he meant, there wasn’t a lot of subtlety to it, but they were at a nice restaurant and the way Kyle was speaking was making him uncomfortable. He looked around to see if the other patrons were watching. 

Kyle was crude! Frank knows that. How can his coworker use the same word to describe his writing?  

Well… like crude oil or crude sugar, you can say that Kyle’s behaviour, Frank’s writing, and (even my drawings here) are undeveloped — it’s raw, unrefined, unpolished. While it is in the natural state, it is lacking the completeness that a quality product should have. 

When we bring that understanding of the word “crude” and relate it to our writing, even though we’ve poured our heart and soul into a piece of work, without the revision necessary, it could indeed come across as crude. 

But Frank’s writing is not a lost cause. Crude is not completely negative. Crude writing can be strong in some sense. It doesn’t leave room for interpretations. It’s not poetic, sure, but it’s clear and blunt (often to a line of offensiveness). Nevertheless, crude writing gets the point across in a direct way. Crude writing is rarely misunderstood. It might be abrasive or rough, but the concept is there in its purest form. Crude writing is something Frank can work with. Crude writing is better than nothing written.

The problem is with Frank’s expectations. He wants to have his work published. He wants it to be regarded as a classic. He wants to have his work within a certain space. And it’s in that act of putting something where it doesn’t yet belong, like Kyle’s talk about lewd acts in an upscale restaurant, that makes Frank’s writing crude. When comparing his work against those who have spent months and years refining their stories — using the same guidelines to judge — it simply doesn’t meet the standard. 

There is certainly a place for crude writing — in fact — for many, it might be a style that works for their personality. There are people out there who would happily consume crude sugar, but most people would rather eat candy. 

If you want your writing to appeal to the largest number of readers, then embracing the fact that you write crudely might not be the best place to start. Readers look for books and articles, the same way shoppers buy groceries, and when shopping, you’d rarely find crude sugar and chocolate bars in the same aisle. The same goes with writing. 

Crude writing can happily live on a blog or a Facebook wall. Just like how Kyle’s sexual stories can live happily at a bar. Yet, it’s when we want to have our work and ourselves reach a certain level, like athletes or actors preparing for a competition or performance, we need to put in the work to polish and refine. 

Frank is proud of his work. It is a personal piece, pouring freshly out of him. Yet, he did not see the crudeness. He is inexperienced and the work is too close to him. He goes through it again, but doesn’t know what to fix or improve on. This is a frustrating place to be. 

Crudeness comes from lack of self awareness. It often needs not only someone to point it out, but someone with the patience to offer suggestions after they pointed it out. It’s having that direction to offer that makes someone a good editor for writing and life. It has to be a mutual progression. If Frank confronted Kyle in the restaurant and told him he was being crude, he would have reacted the same way Frank did after his coworker read his writing. Defensively. In order to overcome crudeness, one needs help from someone who has experience confronting and overcoming the process themselves. But most importantly, they need to want to be helped. 

Nobody can make you write a second draft, if you think the first one is perfect.

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What Does Trying Too Hard Mean?

Heather and Patrick were having coffee together and a conversation about a novel came up. American Gods by Neil Gaiman. “I love that book,” said Patrick, to which Heather responded with a disgusted grunt. “I didn’t like it.” 

Patrick was a little shocked because they often enjoyed the same type of entertainment. “Why?” he asked. 

Heather thought about it for a moment, recalling some aspects of the story and said, “Hmm… I felt that Gaiman was just trying too hard.” 

Patrick was not satisfied with that answer, “Shouldn’t a writer always try hard?” 

“Oh,” said Heather, with no desire to continue the conversation. “I just didn’t like it…” 

Patrick, not wanting to spoil their afternoon together decided to drop it. But the thought lingered in his mind. “Trying too hard.” Shouldn’t that be a good thing?” 

While Heather failed to articulate elements of the story that she disliked, “trying too hard” is a common expression to describe a piece of writing — or a creative work of any kind — that didn’t register with the audience. This is especially noticeable when the work is something as big and bold as Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. 

Nobody would deny that it was a piece of ambitious work. It’s a story about life and death, mythology and beliefs, new America, and sacred lands. It has a massive cast of characters and a climax as epic as any other notable fantasy. But surely that cannot be a bad thing. Can it? 

A writer gives off the impression of trying too hard when the effort put into the work is not only visible but excessive. Although this can all be a matter of personal taste, Heather must have found the references to mythology and religion, the metaphor of media and technology as deities, and the usage of real-world geography and imagined realms too much. Each one of these unique elements added another flavour to the story that she simply wasn’t familiar with. It felt too experimental and it failed to capture her imagination.

When a reader finds that a writer is trying too hard to impress her, it can be off-putting. Unnecessarily large words, similes that miss the mark, flowery language with no purpose, humour that lacks the wit, and cliffhangers at any opportunity given are all elements that leave the reader feeling like the writer was trying too hard. 

Of course, Patrick didn’t think Neil Gaiman was trying too hard. He found American Gods to be an entertaining and thought-provoking novel. Over 450 pages of thrilling action and adventure. He found the story to be a fresh take on a familiar genre and proved to him that Gaiman was a writer that continually pushed the limits of his own creative and literary capabilities. 

One could argue that Gaiman wouldn’t have written something that impacted Patrick so significantly if he didn’t write something that Heather would consider trying too hard. Because one can only believe that Gaiman was trying hard. All writers should try hard. They should all try as hard as they can. They should push their imagination and their writing to the full limit of their potential. 

As far as “Trying too hard” goes, it’s not a completely negative critique. There are some merits to be given. An A for effort. When someone tells you that you’re trying too hard, know that you are heading in the right direction — perhaps a bit of refining is needed — but don’t let what one reader says hold you back from your next epic story. Try hard and keep improving.

If you enjoyed this article, please check out the What Is… of Writing series:

 

What Does “That’s Deep” Mean?

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was a light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

When Peter read that passage from one of his favorite books, he paused for a moment and processed the words on the page. On the surface, it was merely describing what Samwise Gamgee saw and how it made him feel. 

Through the cloudy gloom, up upon the mountains, he saw a white star — and that star gave him hope because it shone through all the darkness. 

Yet, there was something more. Something underneath the literal. To which it made him say out loud, “Wow… that’s deep.” 

But what did he mean? Why did that passage out of the thousands of passages in the trilogy stop him? Or better yet, how did it stop him? 

The phrase “that’s deep” when we hear it in a literal sense, sounds like someone’s talking about the ocean floor. While that might sometimes be the case, what Peter meant when he said that’s deep was that the writing was profound. So in order for us to understand what makes something deep, we must understand what makes something profound. 

The word profound has many definitions, but the one we will be relying on is this one: going far beneath what is superficial, external, or obvious.

Yes, Sam Gamgee saw the star — but it was what the star represented that made the passage profound. It was so beautiful that it smote his heart and even looking at all the destruction, he had hope. Perhaps we have all been where Sam Gamgee was — not literally, not Mt Doom — but we have all been in a situation where we felt as though we were ready to surrender. There were moments where we felt hopeless.

Peter certainly did. He was neck-deep in student debt and looking for employment in the entertainment industry. Of course, the world was not looking for another filmmaker, and any project he wanted to get off the ground was consistently met with rejections. He was in the clouds on the dark tor, ready to quit. 

But the star, a light of high beauty can never be dimmed by the shadow. The shadow in Peter’s world was the debt. No matter how deep he falls into debt, his love for filmmaking and storytelling will never die. The star was his passion and when looking up upon it, he remembered the feeling he got when he premiered his first student film in high school. The audience laughed and cheered. It was what he loved doing. It made him happy. It fulfilled him. It kept him warm and made him feel as though life, his little life, was worth living. And that life — that will to live — hangs so high above the debt, that he knew poverty would never make him hate his passion. For he was living for his passion, not for his debt. 

He closed the book and placed it to the side. Peter, filled with hope and inspiration, his white star visible through the darkness, goes and picks up his camera and starts filming. He didn’t ask for permission. He didn’t ask for a budget. He didn’t go get approval or a permit. Like Sam, he’s focused on the twinkling star and not on the forsaken land beneath. 

For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was a small passing thing. 

We all have a Shadow — a capital problem that follows us — but Tolkien doesn’t make it obvious, he layers it with imagery and symbolism. 

Imagery is vivid and descriptive language. It creates visuals in the reader’s mind by appealing to the senses. In this case, sight: “There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while.” 

Symbolism is the use of characters, settings, or objects to present an abstract idea. It holds hidden meanings and requires some deeper thinking to identify. In this example, it was the star and the Shadow. “For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was a light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

Of course, Tolkien didn’t have Peter in mind when he wrote the story. But by using imagery and symbolism, he was able to emotionally impact a wider audience and his writing has lasted generations. That is what profound writing can do. Profound writing transcends time and space. It captures what it is like to be human without ever stating the obvious, “here, this is what you have to do. These are the facts.” It lies not on the surface and requires the individual, with their own values and personal experiences, to dig underneath. And it’s the process of digging that makes a piece of writing deep. 

Is there a profound passage of writing that really resonated with you? I’d love to read it, so please share it in the comments below. And if you’ve enjoyed this article, check out these two other posts in the series:

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Improve Your Writing By Copying

Three weeks ago, I started my journey to type out The Great Gatsby. I remember reading an interview from Johnny Depp saying that this was something Hunter S Thompson did because he wanted to know what it would be like to write a masterpiece. Since then, I was eager to give it a shot, thinking that it would be an enlightening experience. As unpleasant as the current situation is, it had given me some extra hours in the week to put my anxious energy into a new project, so I decided, now is the time.

I’ve read The Great Gatsby exactly ten years ago and remembered feeling little about it. That goes to show how little I knew when I was younger. It was like listening to The Beatles’ Hey Jude and then going, “Who’s Jude?” I’ve missed the point. 

It takes practice in order to have an appreciation for craft, especially when the world is full of junk. Like food, after you limit the amount of sugar you consume, you’d begin to appreciate the complex flavour of vegetables. It’s a beautiful moment when that happens. The same goes for art. When we start noticing the qualities of a craft, we begin to see junk lacking in substance. 

I was confident there was something I could learn from copy The Great Gatsby, as there is copying any masterpiece, regardless of the craft. Learning by replicating is an effective way of recognizing the little details that make up a full piece. A great piece of writing, in the end, is just a combination of words. When you acknowledge each individual word, giving a real moment to type it out, you see each brick for what it is — a unique piece in a mosaic that is easy to miss when looking top down. I wanted to see everything Fitzgerald put into his story that I wouldn’t if I was speeding through it, as I did a decade ago… 

With all that in mind, here are six key areas of The Great Gatsby I wanted to focus on while I’m going through this copying process: 

Word choices: 

Vocabulary is to a writer as to what colours are to a painter. From descriptions to dialogue, I was curious to see all the words that Fitzgerald chose. Some, I’m sure, will confuse me and others will surprise me. When writing, I find myself using the same words over and over again — using colours I’m comfortable with — but by typing out every specific word in someone else’s novel, I’ll hopefully discover new ones and widen the spectrum of my vocabulary. 

Variety of sentences and paragraphs: 

When we read, we are absorbing information, but at that speed, we might miss the rhythm of the language — or at least not be conscious about it. By typing out a story, I will slow down the process of consumption and see the varying lengths of words, sentences and paragraphs. If this was music, I’d not only focused on the lyrics, but I’d also be hearing the tempo of the drumbeat, the harmony of the bass, and the cadence of the melody. I’d see how Fitzgerald draws out a detail in a long expository sentence or increases the pacing in a heated dialogue. 

The order of information: 

Good communication is the delivery of information in a coherent and logical order. Good storytelling, however, is the strategic reveal of details that increases drama and evokes an emotional response. A good story isn’t simply a sequential order of events: this happened and then this happened and then afterward this happened. No! Great writing is magic, because like magic, the principles are the same but instead of sleight of hand it’s with words: hiding, switching and misdirecting. By typing out the novel, I’m hoping to catch F Scott in the act and see what tricks he used to keep us turning the pages.  

Narrator and characters: 

One of the biggest challenges while writing is making sure your characters don’t all sound the same, so that in the readers’ minds, they are all individual people, with personalities, feelings, and beliefs so realistic that they’ll feel as though they’re sitting next to them. It’s certainly a challenge I have, so I’m going to be paying attention to the character construction while typing out The Great Gatsby and see how Fitzgerald helped us identify with Nick, Daisy, and Gatsby. 

Hidden details: 

When you are writing, everything slows down, you begin to notice each sentence, each phrase, and even every syllable. This aspect is fun because you feel a bit like an archaeologist or like the Tom Hanks character in The Da Vinci Code. You study the writing, like The Last Supper, looking for hidden messages and wondering whether the creator expected it to be there at all. 

Is typing out The Great Gatsby as valuable as a creative writing course? Hmmm… That’s a question for another time, but I truly believe that there is a lot to learn from this exercise. You will see how the story is constructed. Like a painting, you’ll experience each brushstroke. Like a song, you’ll be able to hear each note. Like a house, you’ll notice each nail, and that is what copying a piece of work offers you. Additionally, it’s a therapeutic activity, much like knitting, building a LEGO miniature, and solving a jigsaw puzzle. 

If you are interested in following my typing out the Great Gatsby journey, please join me via my YouTube channel every Saturday at 11am PDT. We can chat about all things writing and creativity, or whatever else is on your mind!

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