Notebook

 

In 2016, metal fabricator Cory Fass stripped his chopper motorcycle down to the naked frame. When he welded, I observed. I asked questions while he was grinding steel and polishing aluminum. I learned about motorcycles, design, craftsmanship, and a lot about Cory Fass. 

To Say Something is sixteen lessons, sixteen things I learned or confirmed about saying something through visual elements during the hours spent witnessing a custom chopper come to life in a Kansas City double door garage. This class is to help photographers, visual communicators, draw closer to their unique expression, to point to something, to say something. 

Hard Return and Indent

Keep sentences short fits neatly on the slip of paper inside a fortune cookie. 


Fortune cookies are fun, 

to pretend amongst friends after dinner that the words were meant for you, 

that in all the directions this cookie and its advice traveled from factory to your table, 

this cookie is just for you, 

and arrived just in time to be helpful. 

Keep sentences short. 

I never turn down a fortune cookie, 

but I don’t put any stock in its free advice. 

While so much hand me down advice on writing admonishes keep sentences short

to prune them back to the stem, 

this blind advice doesn’t care about your writing, 

neither does it care about your reader. 

Adages, aphorisms, and other distillations of folk wisdom seek to gain influence among the choices we face in life by providing a memorable bit of free advice. 

You get what you pay for. 

The secret to memorable adages is their euphony and use of rhetorical device—

antithesis—a penny saved is a penny earned;

contrast—an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure;

apophasis—fish and visitors stink after three days. 

The secret to useful adages is to know which to apply, 

to know under what conditions to apply them, 

or to know the change in a situation which makes the application of the adage no longer maximally useful. 

If you have been keeping your sentences short in obedience to the commandment

thou shalt keep thy sentences short, 

don’t worry; it’s never too late to learn. 

Then again, you can’t teach and old dog new tricks. 

Where would the advice keep sentences short come from, 

and when would it apply usefully?

For a moment, 

step away from the writer and the reader as we focus on the English teacher, writing instructor, or editor of some capacity. 

Long sentences can get unwieldy under the pen or keyboard of sloppy writers,

writers concerned about completing an assignment as quickly as possible,

writers who consider spell check a second and final draft,

writers who bloat sentences with phatic words to get the minimum required word count accomplished in the least time and effort possible. 

That writing then gets read, 

and often corrected, 

which correction can go from noting inconsistency in parallelism, 

to identifying confusing changes in verb tense, 

to unpacking run-on sentences, 

by a responsible recipient.  

When giving a writing assignment, 

a teacher, or anyone who knows the writing will eventually come back, 

and with it a responsibility to make corrections, 

there is a temptation to head off some of the time consuming mistakes:

use spell check, 

and use grammar check before turning in your assignments (essay, report, proposal, presentation, white paper)—

and, for Heaven’s sake, keep sentences short

This idea attempts to keep corrections minimal by keeping sentences simple, 

or in other words, short. 

Often writing has some limitation set on word count or space for printing. 

Writing within such a limitation may feel like packing a suitcase; 

keep sentences short so you can pack all the stuff you will need. 

Long sentences may feel like someone will have to stand on the suitcase while zipping it up to get it all in. 

This idea misidentifies long sentences for unwieldy sentences, 

and incorrectly correlates brevity with simplicity. 

Keep sentences short is advice to reign in untrusted writers. 

Dr. Brooks Landon speaking in Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writers Craft

from The Great Courses, 

compares a sentence to a movie camera, 

able to start out wide and sweeping, 

then zoom in close to see detail, 

all while moving the position of the camera through yaw, pitch, and pan to view a scene from different angles. 

This is a great metaphor, 

and I think exploring it further can offer more interesting comparisons to how a variety of lenses   used to record a scene or an event offer fair enlightenment on a variety of sentences used to record the scene or experience of the writers mind. 

In addition to wide and narrow lenses, 

a special type of lens known in its category as macro allows the camera to view unusually close, 

to get so close to the subject the front lens element nearly touches the object, 

so close that a small insect or bug fills the viewing area, 

a bee walking across the honey comb of its home, 

its body filling the lens, 

its body pushing against the artificial confines of the screen edges; 

and this unique lens allows the viewer to have a unique experience, 

either in seeing in detail the formerly unseen, 

or as another transition from scene to scene as the director calls upon a variety of lenses to communicate the story. 

The camera also has the ability to alter the perception of time, 

recording frames at high speed so when played back in conventional frames per second the splash of a drop of water 

the dive of the initial drop, 

the rippled tension of the surface, 

can be explored. 

Slowing down the frame rate gives a viewer an opportunity to speed up time, 

to see the imperceptibly slows movement of a flower open, 

to see sunflowers turn their heads as the sun crosses the sky over the course of a day, 

or watch a patch of barren ground become a sky scraper in one minute. 

Sentences, 

long and short, 

and all varieties on the continuum between long and short, 

give the writer an opportunity to communicate his or her thoughtful mind to the reader, 

not completely analogous to a camera, 

but in the vein of having a plethora of choices, 

none of them constrained by the dictum keep sentences short. 

To facilitate the exploration and dissection of long sentences into constituent clauses and subordinate clauses, 

Dr. Brooks displayed the sentences in his presentation by a hard return and indent of each clause and subordinate clause from the base or kernel phrase. 

From this cascading structure, 

from the point of view of the student, 

it was easy to visually perceive the relationships between clauses and subordinate clauses, 

detect parallel writing, 

identify rhetorical patterns and devices, 

follow consistent verb tense through the acrobatic contortions of the long sentence, 

see how punctuation plays a subtle role in whispering to the reader if the next string of words is another clause, another layer of subordinate clause, or a return from a subordinate clause back to a new branching clause, 

and follow the varied patterns of sentences on the continuum of cumulative to suspensive. 

The human mind is capable of remembering, recalling, and working with large amounts of visual/spacial information, 

but we are quite limited on how much working memory capacity we have for numbers and words. 

Just as some complicated math problems, 

such as in geometry, algebra, and physics, 

become easier to understand and solve with a visual aid, 

such as drawing a square then bisecting it at two corners to make two equalateral triangles, 

so the inputs of a long sentence are easier to work with when, 

separated by hard stops and indents, 

the sentence becomes a visual object latent with patterns, 

relationships, balances, forms. 

While Dr. Landon presents this to the student as an initial aid for reading, 

I discovered this can also be a method for writing. 

By breaking apart long sentences, 

opening them up through hard return and indent, 

the sentence can be planned, and inspected at the same time as written, 

and can even follow a prefabricated form or pattern. 

The writer can plan for the accumulation of clauses and subordinate clauses,

until the purpose of the suspense finally reveals itself.

If a cumulative sentence is needed for rhetorical purposes, 

the writer can plan for the accumulation of clauses and subordinate clauses,

each building on the last, 

or turn the gaze of the reader in a new direction, 

until the purpose of the suspense finally reveals itself. 

If a cumulative sentence is needed for rhetorical purposes, 

the writer can plan for the accumulation of clauses and subordinate clauses,

each building on the last, 

either to give more information, 

make the communication more exact in description; 

or turn the gaze of the reader in a new direction, 

give more aspects of the idea,

allow the reader to perceive the subject from several distinct, but related angles, 

until the purpose of the suspense finally reveals itself. 

The writer can plan for the accumulation of clauses and subordinate clauses. 

The writer can plan for the accumulation of clauses and subordinate clauses, 

the accumulation building the information in the sentence. 

The writer can plan for the accumulation of clauses and subordinate clauses, 

the accumulation building the information in the sentence, 

the sentence now a journey of the mind. 

The writer can plan for the accumulation of clauses and subordinate clauses, 

the accumulation building the information in the sentence, 

the sentence now a journey of the mind, 

which journey the reader takes inside the environment created by the thoughtful writer, 

persuasive for its confusion between the writers mind and the readers mind. 

Because the sentences are open, 

+

it is easy to leave a gap, 

+

as a marker for later return to fill in description, 

+

+

but for now the writer can move on while the flow of the idea is both present and has a limited persistence in the writers mind.

Because the sentences are open, 

their forms and patterns easily perceived and followed, 

it is easy to leave a gap, 

perhaps a plus sign,

as a marker for later return to fill in description, 

add a fact that is now unknown, 

or balance out a pattern when the right word comes to mind, 

but for now the writer can move on while the flow of the idea is both present and has a limited persistence in the writers mind. 

Measuring the utility of a sentence by word count is unhelpful at best. 

A more interesting question is whether the sentence delivers the intended effect: 

speeding a reader through time, 

stretching time so the significance of a decisive second is explored from several angles, 

describing an environment with enough fidelity the reader could identify it if she walked into it, 

communicating to or creating an emotion within the reader for which there is not yet a  word. 

Write long sentences; write short sentences. 

Above all, 

write sentences that communicate the mind of a thoughtful writer. 

Cory MacNeil