Mind The Gap

Last month I was one of the adjudicators at the Scottish Association of Writers’ Conference in Cumbernauld. I spent time with old friends, made some new ones, learned more things about writing and generally had a great time with plenty of laughs. Despite the fact that perhaps most of those present had submitted entries for the various writing categories and were, therefore, in competition with one another, winners were greeted warmly and there were no negative notes or anything other than friends being together and sharing their pleasure in a common interest – i.e. good writing. My brief was to assess entries in the General Article category. There were 61, all interesting and covering a wide range of subjects. Choosing first, second, third, three highly commendeds and three commendeds was hard because standards in all the submissions were high. I was pretty confident that I’d got the right winner, though; a fact that was confirmed when the writer read it aloud to the gathered delegates. Hearing it made it even better. I had to give a short summary about the submissions. It included my usual mantra of:

  1. Trust your own voice.
  2. Read your work aloud as part of the editing process.
  3. Separate the functions of writer and editor.

But I also called attention to a couple of points which had let some of the entries down. Part of my ‘advice’ was about giving an argument (or a narrative) a tighter structure and a smoother flow, and I suggested that a way of achieving this was to focus on the gaps between sentences.

Here’s an example for you to try. I’ve taken some sentences from an exercise in the book Just Write, which I co-authored with my friend Kathleen McMillan. They’re separate, random notes on the topic of immigration which might form a paragraph in a broader article or essay. The exercise involves putting these notes in a sequence that makes sense and then, crucially, finding words and/or expressions to link them so that, rather than isolated observations on the topic, they cohere into a fluid, unified presentation, all contributing to a central argument. Leave the gaps unplugged or partially plugged and you have a jerky, scattered style which detracts from their impact. And those bits of linguistic mortar which hold the sentences together to give structure to your presentation can be as simple as ‘but’, ‘on the other hand’, ‘paradoxically’, ‘so’ and many others. The notes are:

  • For some Americans, the influx of different ethnicities appears to run counter to God’s intentions.
  • Multi-culturalism is a feature of most societies in the modern world.
  • It could be argued that America is a nation made up entirely of immigrants.
  • Despite its ethnic diversity, the self-image of the USA seems to project the notion of a singular, predominantly ‘American’ culture.
  • The USA prides itself on being able to absorb and embrace the most varied arrivals.

You can put them in any sequence you like and when you do, notice how, rather than the notes themselves, it’s your linking words and expressions that ease the reader in the direction you want her to follow. The observations have power and impact in isolation, but it’s the things in the gaps between them that harness and deliver that power. They bring them into closer relationships. Just read them aloud and feel how the flow and rhythms are improved. Don’t lose sight of the simple things.

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