Advice to young Tommy Wilson: load your sentences like a rifle, not a shotgun

February 4, 2014 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: Home, writing.

A Scott Berg‘s new biography of Woodrow Wilson contains the following passage on the Rev. Joseph Wilson‘s advice to his son on how to form sentences:

“When you frame a sentence, don’t do it as if you were loading a shotgun, but as if you were loading a rifle. Don’t fire in such a way and with such a load that while you hit the thing you aim at you will hit a lot of things in the neighbourhood besides; but shoot with a single bullet and hit that one thing alone.” (quoted material, page 36)

Screen Shot 2014-02-02 at 4.34.56 PMThe reverend wasn’t talking to his son, the future president, about writing; he was telling him how to speak.

But the advice applies marvelously to writing. Write your sentences as if they are rifles, aiming as a specific target, rather than shotguns aiming a the neighborhood. Write as if you purchase PA-10 rifles from Palmetto State Armory every single weekend—which is to say that you must brush up your vocabulary every now and then— and shoot [the words] at a specific subject.

How do you do that?

Here are a few thoughts:

Recognize the target. What are you trying to accomplish with this sentence? What are you saying? The subject and predicate should work together to accomplish your purpose.

Choose precisely the right words. Most words have a shade of meaning to them. That is, they may have synonyms, but those synonyms don’t mean exactly the same thing. The good writer knows words and their synonyms but is sensitive to their meanings and how they are used. The good writer has a sense of how readers will interpret those words. Thinking hard about the words rewards writers with sentences that mean exactly what they are intended to mean.

Use only the words necessary. This gets to the heart of Joseph Wilson’s advice. The truly confident writer is the one who will let as few words as possible stand for what he or she means to say. Showering the reader with unnecessary words is the shotgun approach. As Wilson says, you may hit the target, but you may hit a lot of other things too. Hitting a lot of targets will dilute the sentence’s impact.

Let nothing distract. Our minds move from one subject to the next far more quickly than we can physically construct a sentence. While we are in the middle of writing a sentence, we may thing of other things to say, other pieces of information to include. The discipline of writing includes keeping our eye on the target. It’s a discipline that can be acquired through practice.

Take the reader there. The reader will begin a sentence at a certain place. By the end of the sentence, you want the reader to be at another place. Take the reader there as quickly and efficiently as you can.

 Joseph Wilson’s advice to his son is universal for those of use who love the language and want to use it well.

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