Unhelpful writing advice

This video is named “How to Write a Memorable Sentence.” Unfortunately it only succeeds in explaining literary terms that aren’t directly useful for a storyteller, such as “anaphora” and “extended parallelism.” It seems to separate the writing process from the storytelling process to the point of hilarity. It’s like trying to explain the success of a Mozart symphony by listing its notes and chords.

I post this here not just for my own amusement. I think one of the greatest things any storyteller can do to learn his craft is to study his own emotional reactions to specific things. If you like something, why do you like it? If you don’t, why not? Sometimes it can be hard to tell why something just doesn’t feel right, but you gain that much more skill if you can recognize a specific reason (or set of reasons).

“What makes a sentence memorable?” is a dumb question to begin with; memorability is not something you can so simply analyze your way through, as if the only variables were the sentence’s words and their position in the sentence. A better question would be: “What makes a sentence work in the context of its story?”

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2 thoughts on “Unhelpful writing advice

  1. Admittedly without having bothered to watch it, I would like to point out that although the notes and chords aren’t enough to define the greatness of a Mozart symphony, understanding them (and especially for the composer, mastering them) is essential for making the piece anything at all. And as a writer, editor, and linguistics student, I certainly do believe that some sentences are simply better constructed than others: better worded, having a certain music, more precise, more concise (not length, rather lack of useless matter), and so forth, all make it more effective—and, I find, more memorable.

  2. I certainly agree some sentences can be better constructed than others, just as I believe some melodies can be more memorable than others. But I believe the conditions that determine these value judgments come much more from experiential context (the set of conditions under which an observer is experiencing the material, his emotional response to it, and what meaning he extracts from it) than listing patterns we have given name to only after judging the experience worthy of analysis in the first place.

    In other words, I do not mean to criticize the professor’s points for what they are, nor the value anyone places on learning such material, but I do criticize the notion that such points constitute a helpful or appropriate approach to the subject of his talk.

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