Avoid Backing In

Impala tail lights

We’re going to discuss “Breaking Bad Habits” in our writing during the next few Thursdays, beginning today with “Avoid Backing In.”

I gave my daughter’s friend a ride home once. We drove for several miles along a road that could almost be described as a pig trail. One narrow lane, deep ditches on either side, more dirt than gravel. Her home was perched on top of a low ridge. As we neared her driveway, she said, “How good are you at backing?”

My first thought was “Am I going to have to BACK down that long, winding road?” Thankfully, I only had to back down the driveway, which was still a challenge. Navigating that entire road in reverse would have been nearly impossible. And, for our readers, navigating a backward sentence can be just as nerve-wracking.

Consider the following sentence (taken from a review):

“Set firmly and with a sustained and vivid sensuous immediacy in the 19th Century, and taking place mostly in the exotic world of the British West Indies though some scenes are set in London and the English countryside, the book tells two stories that are closely related, indeed inextricably joined in time and place.”

Wow! Did you follow that? The entire passage can be reduced to a farily simple sentence:

“The book, set largely in the 19th century British West Indies, tells two closely related stories.”

The rest of the sentence is fluff. There is no “firm” setting if the story wanders through several locations. Backing in often leads to wordiness. Beginning sentences with a subject and verb promotes concise writing.

There are times, of course, you will want to “back in,” but often new writers introduce nearly every sentence with a long clause. Backing in is especially to be avoided when writing action sequences.

Think of how we speak. If you’ve just encountered a spider, do you say, “Following a long, leisurely walk along the garden path, I lifted my eyes from gazing at the wildflowers dotting the grass, and beheld a black and yellow spider looming inches from my face.” No, you would say, “I nearly walked into a spider web!” Action passages are concise.

Backed in sentences are easy to fix. Words to watch include: apparently, although, because of, etc. Look for the subject when you notice those words or any sort of introductory phrase. The previous sentence could have been written, “When you notice…” which would have been backing in. See how easy it is to correct?

The old journalism rule — “Begin sentences with subjects and verbs, and then branch right” — works well in all writing. John Stienbeck was a master. The following passage is from Cannery Row:

He didn’t need a clock. He had been working in a tidal pattern so long that he could feel a tide change in his sleep. In the dawn he awakened, looked out through the windshield, and saw that the water was already retreating down the bouldery flat. He drank some hot coffee, ate three sandwiches, and had a quart of beer.

The tide goes out imperceptibly. The boulders show and seem to rise up and the ocean recedes leaving little pools, leaving wet weed and moss and sponge, iridescence and brown and blue and China red. On the bottoms lie the incredible refuse of the sea, shells broken and chipped and bits of skeleton, claws, the whole sea bottom a fantastic cemetery on which the living scamper and scramble.

Note how each sentence begins with a subject and verb, followed, if need be, by any descriptive phrases. This structure creates vivid writing and prevents our readers from careening their necks to look over their shoulders as they “back in” to the story.

Until next time,

Happy Blogging!

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1 comment so far ↓

#1 Jinnia Low on 02.05.10 at 1:13 pm

What a great tip! I’m looking for ways to improve my writing and this is one of them. Thank you for sharing this.

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