The writer Stephen King pushes people who want to write well to "read, read, read."
Reading a wide variety of writing can feel like riding waves of language: words, sentences, paragraphs — all of which carry us along into a story.
Immersing ourselves can empower us to write concisely, cogently and clearly — the very skills that create success in getting our message across.
I have loved words since the age of 4, when my mother taught me to spell by having me sound out letters on a bottle of ketchup. My hunger for reading always led me to borrow the maximum number of books that our town library allowed: eight at a time.
But it was my sixth-grade English teacher Miss Moore who gave me the gift of being able to see and feel the structure of language. She taught us to diagram a sentence, through a graphic representation of how nouns, verbs, articles, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions and the rest relate to each other.
A diagram starts in this way: Draw a horizontal line with a vertical line in the middle. On the left side of the vertical, write the noun; on the right side, the verb. All other lines, designating other parts of speech, branch off from those sections.
Wonder of wonders, this past week, the vision of Miss Moore sprang to mind:
A reader of this column wrote me about how he learned to diagram a sentence in Catholic school from Sister Bernadine.
And a dear friend sent me a birthday gift – the book "Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences," by Kitty Burns Florey, published in paperback in 2006.
The book's pages overflow with diagrams; you can learn the craft right there. But just as important, Florey's own sentences deliver writing that's clear, engaging and punchy.
An example: "A good spatial sense helped you arrange things so that the diagram didn't end up jammed against the edge of the blackboard like commuters in a subway car."
Mechanics plus style can equal not only clarity, but delight.
Twin Cities writing coach Gary Gilson, who teaches journalism at Colorado College, can be reached through writebetterwithgary.com.