Brain Thorns

Thorns“All sentences are not created equal.”

That sentence jams a cactus spine into my brain, triggering wild buzzing and a whirl of obsessive thoughts.

Even if the story I’m reading is sweet and beautiful as a cactus blossom, when I hear any variation of “All men are not tall”,  my brain revs up like an angry hornet. I know the intention: to contradict the clearly false idea that all men ARE tall. The literal meaning of that sentence is that no men are tall. Obviously that’s as false as the initial statement. The world is full of men of a wide range of heights.

The accurate meaning is “Not all men are tall.” Or, “Men are not all tall.” But hey – I know you could find a better way of stating that within the context of your story.

I saw that opening sentence in a review of  Jenny Davidson’s book, Reading Style: A Life in Sentences. The review quotes that inflammatory sentence from the second paragraph of the first chapter of Tankard’s book.

How would I edit that sentence?  That’s a fair question. The real message of that sentence is better stated in the following one: “Some (sentences) are more interesting, more intricate, more attractive or repellent than others.” I’d omit the first sentence entirely. But then I’d have to address the fact that neither sentence has anything to do with the rest of the lengthy paragraph. Oh my!

I would not write off a book based on a single sentence, no matter how annoying, but that sentence triggered my "the rest of this better be extraordinary to overcome that transgression” button, and I just showed you that further exploration did not stand the book in good stead. Had that brain thorn not been there, the awkward paragraph probably would have slipped by unseen.

Brain thorns tend to poison a reader’s outlook. Hopefully my rant will prevent you from planting this thorn in your stories. Write what you really mean and your stories will sing.

This is only one example of a multitude of brain thorns. This one is personal and stabs deep. Awkward writing and sloppy checking, like typos, missing commas, or confusing I/me or its/it’s are less distracting to me, but thorns nevertheless.

Are you aware of brain thorns as you read? Join the conversation and tell us about yours in a comment.

Right now: Delight readers by using Grammar Check to remove brain thorns from your writing. Grammar Check is often wrong and can be a distraction if you leave it turned on, but do run it before your final save. Find its location on Word’s Review tab  ribbon and use it to check a few old stories. You may be surprised what you find. Ask trusted friends or your writing group to check for thorns that slip past your eyes and Word’s functions.


karen walker said...

I am so sorry I probably gave you several brain thorns - if I'm enjoying a story, I don't notice them as much - kind of like when I'm listening to a good singer and they go off key - I don't mind. It doesn't affect my feeling about the whole performance.

Sharon said...

Karen, you bring up an important point. The thorn I mentioned in this post was in a traditionally published book written by an English lit professor. I hold books like that to a high standard. I hold PUBLISHED books in general to a higher standard, though I may cut self-published ones a bit more slack. Most of the time, like you, I get absorbed in a story and put on leather brain gear to protect against pricks.

Preliminary drafts are an entirely different story. In that case, I've been invited to comment and I dearly love cleaning up messes and pruning thorns. I get excited about helping other people smooth out their stories -- if the story seems worth smoothing. I can't remember one that didn't, though I've seen some that need a huge amount of work to ready them for public distribution.

Private stories for family and friends? I just hope they make sense!

Writing is best done as a team sport, and nobody can learn without writing tons of thorn-infested drafts!

suzicate said...

Brain thorns-I have never heard that term.
I recently read something about this although this term was not used. He was talking about the "skill" of writing and how it can be taught. On the other hand storytelling is a gift. His point was (his example was Dan Brown) a person could be a terrible writer and a best seller if he knew how to tell a story. He stated likewise a person who wrote beautiful prose but didn't know how to tell a story would probably not go far. It actually made me back of of my editing while I"m writing. It was really what I needed to hear to hush my inner critic and save my editing for AFTER my story is told...this has been a tremendous problem for me.

Sharon said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment, Suzi, and to bring up Dan Brown and the importance of STRONG STORY. My husband and I recently listened to Dan's latest, INFERNO, all the way from Pittsburgh to Albuquerque -- a three day drive. His writing irritated both of us in various spots, but the spellbinding story held us captive.

Yes, yes to backing off from editing as you write. I'm working on that also, realizing that I usually change structure so much that any early polish becomes irrelevant anyway. Polishing off those brain thorns is a last pass process. At that point, attention to detail and examining every phrase for precision as well as grammatical correctness will pay off.