The Subjective Microscope

The Subjective Microscope

A Technique for Writers

by Alan Carl Nicoll

Copyright 2017 by Alan Carl Nicoll, All Rights Reserved

Revised 1/9/2018 to correct numbering and make a few slight changes.

Introduction

The subjective microscope is my rather fanciful name for a rather obvious technique to teach oneself about writing style.  I practiced it about ten times before I ever came up with a name for it.

I suggest trying this first in longhand on lined paper, primarily because that’s how I did it, but I also think that writing longhand encourages a slower, more thoughtful approach than typing.

If the following description is too tedious to read straight through, jump ahead to my example; the method will soon be apparent.  Then come back to this section.

Take a book you like and find a paragraph that you like of eight or ten sentences.  I like to select paragraphs of description, because writing descriptions is difficult for me.  I also like to use the technique on the first paragraph of a novel, because these are usually worked on more than anything except the ending.

Copy the paragraph out into your chosen medium.  Beneath that, recopy the first sentence.  If the sentence is very long, break it up into convenient chunks, such as clauses.  Then make observations about the sentence or first chunk and write them out.  Write whatever interests you, there is no particular plan to follow; but I’ll offer a plan.  In the following I will speak only of whole sentences.

Consider the structure and grammatical nature of the sentence:  is it a fragment?  Are there multiple clauses?  How well do the parts work together?  If there are pronouns, find the referent for each one and consider whether a reader might go astray in this identification?  Readers will automatically assume that the possible referent closest before the pronoun is the correct referent—is it?  Explain to yourself whatever you think is worth explaining.  If you are uncertain about the sentence, figure out why; then try alterations to “fix the problem.”

Consider the most significant words, nouns and verbs and adjectives, and consider alternatives; write the sentence with different words, and compare them in your mind.  Consider how many words, and which words, can be eliminated without destroying the sentence altogether.  Write those shortened sentences.  Do they seem to you more vigorous?  Do they read faster?  Are they better, or is something lost by shortening?

Consider the sounds of the individual words, and the sounds as they occur in the sentence.  Is there a cacophony or a harmony?  What is the rhythm of the sentence?  Does the rhythm make sense compared to the surface meaning of the sentence?

If you broke a sentence into convenient chunks, reconsider them again as parts of the original sentence.  Would they work better or be more effective in some way if they were combined differently, or broken into two or more sentences?  Also, would combining the original sentences into fewer, longer forms be a good idea?  Play with these changes.

Of the alternative sentences you’ve come up with, do you like any better than the original sentence?  Tinker with it some more.  When you’ve done all you can stand with the first sentence, then proceed to the second, and so on through the paragraph.  Then reread the whole paragraph and see if your work has given you some new insights; if so, write them down.  Do you like the order of the sentences in the paragraph?  What is the overall plan, if any?  Is there variation in length, structure, subject-verb order, or something else?  Write down any observations which you find surprising or interesting.

And that’s about it.  This is not a technique I use all the time; indeed, I used it intensively only for about two weeks, as I had time and energy.  But I thought it the most valuable exercise I’ve ever done, to make me a better, more thoughtful writer.

The Example

This example was selected by opening J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, New York, 1954-2014) at random, and it was the first full paragraph on page 72, but if I hadn’t liked it, I would have chosen another.  The paragraph didn’t strike me as especially interesting; it seems rather run-of-the-mill; but here it is.  It’s a quote, but I’m omitting quote marks throughout.

In the example, I make no attempt to follow the process I described above; I’m too lazy for that.

The day’s march promised to be warm and tiring work.  After some miles, however, the road ceased to roll up and down:  it climbed to the top of a steep bank in a weary zig-zagging sort of way, and then prepared to go down for the last time.  In front of them they saw the lower lands dotted with small clumps of trees that melted away in the distance to a brown woodland haze.  They were looking across the Woody End towards the Brandywine River.  The road wound away before them like a piece of string.

The first thing to notice is that this is a fairly long paragraph of mundane description, and the characters are essentially just pairs of eyes.  They do not interact with the setting.  I’m not saying that any of this is good or bad, I’m just thinking out loud, you might say.

The day’s march promised to be warm and tiring work.

The first thing I thought when I reread this sentence was, is this really a “promise”?  If I were faced with a day of warm and tiring work, I would likely dread it.  So:

  1. The day’s march threatened warm and tiring work.

I’m not excited.  Either a promise or a threat makes the sentence a metaphor, because day’s marches don’t literally promise or threaten anything.  If I wanted to eliminate the metaphor, perhaps feeling that I’ve used too many lately, or too many in the paragraph, I might do this:

  1. The day’s march looked like warm and tiring work.

I don’t have strong feelings about this.  What about “warm and tiring”; can these be combined into one word, perhaps beneficially?  As a general rule, shorter is better.  Strunk and White advise us to “Omit needless words.”  In some cases one might want to “Omit needless books,” but let’s pass on that.

But look further:  Is it possible to combine the adjectives (“warm,” “tiring”) with the noun (“work”) into a single word?  This is often possible, and is often very effective.  “Drudgery” occurs to me as a one-word substitute for “warm and tiring work.”  This gives me an entry to my thesaurus; for convenience, I’m going to use the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus that was supplied with my MacBook Air.  This gives, “hard work, menial work, donkey work, toil, labor; chores.”  The first three don’t appeal to me, nor the last two, which leaves:

  1. The day’s march looked like toil.
  2. The day’s march looked like drudgery.

An alternative thesaurus and some browsing produced “sweat” as an alternative to “drudgery.”  This has a certain appeal:

  1. The day’s march looked like sweat.

This is vivid and I quite like it.  In context, the word might be considered too jarring or too vivid.  Tolkien’s characters (and Victorian women) don’t sweat, that I recall.

As alternatives to “the day’s march” one could consider mentioning the road, though this makes “sweat” ambiguous:

  1. The road looked like warm and tiring work.  or,
  2. The road ahead looked like sweat.  (glistening? wet?) or,
  3. The road ahead looked like drudgery.  or,
  4. The day’s march threatened sweat.  or,
  5. The day’s march promised to be warm and tiring work.

Number 10 is the original sentence.  I find that I dropped “to be” without even thinking about it; it could be eliminated from 10 without loss, it seems to me.  7 and 8 seem to me the best of these alternatives, considered in isolation.  I don’t like the echoing vowels in “threatened sweat,” so I eliminated 9 from consideration.  Number 7 also has an echoing vowel:  “ahead sweat,” but the words are separated enough that I don’t hear it much.

Of course it would be possible to change the sentence to dialogue:

  1. Frodo said, “Looks like this road promises nothing but sweat.”

But let’s move on to the second sentence.

After some miles, however, the road ceased to roll up and down:  it climbed to the top of a steep bank in a weary zig-zagging sort of way, and then prepared to go down for the last time.

Since this is a bit long for word-by-word alteration, I’ll just work on the part before the colon:

After some miles, however, the road ceased to roll up and down

Here, Tolkien has defined, in a sense, what the “warm and tiring work” of the first sentence meant:  road rolling up and down.  This is a bit of a connection which needs to be noticed and considered.  Here’s the first sentence again:

The day’s march promised to be warm and tiring work.

I’m inclined to say that we should have gotten the “up and down” in the first sentence, because thoughtful readers might wonder why the day’s march promised to be warm and tiring work.  What is the weather like?  But let’s move on:

After some miles, however, the road ceased to roll up and down

Why say something up and down ceased, when you can say directly that it flattened?  Given that “up and down” didn’t occur in the previous sentence, if we don’t mention it at all, it will be there only by implication:

  1. After some miles, however, the road flattened out.  or,
  2. After some miles, however, the road smoothed out.  or,
  3. After some miles, however, the road became flat.  (or flatter)

Let’s see how these look together:

  1. The day’s march looked like sweat.  After some miles, however, the road flattened out…

“Out” is not strictly necessary, but “the road flattened” seemed abrupt to me.  It looks okay in isolation; let’s compare 1 to the original:

The day’s march promised to be warm and tiring work.  After some miles, however, the road ceased to roll up and down…

I do like my version 1 better than Tolkien’s original; it’s 14 words versus 22.  Of course, many more variations could be tried; if we like the rolling up and down, we can restore it:

  1. The day’s march looked like sweat.  After some miles, however, the road ceased to roll up and down…

Let’s also consider another part of part 1 of sentence 2:

After some miles, however, the road ceased to roll up and down…

“After some miles” could be replaced with “later” or “later in the day” or “towards noon,” anything to indicate the passage of time.  “Some” could instead be a number, adding some precision, but walkers would not be expected to have a precise idea of how far they’ve walked.  It could be done nonetheless; it’s a point of view question.

“Road” and “roll” form a weak echo; the altered “o” sound of “to” seems to muffle the echo.  But I find that I’m tired of part 1 of sentence 2, so I’ll move on to part 2 of sentence 2:

…it climbed to the top of a steep bank in a weary zig-zagging sort of way, and then prepared to go down for the last time.

“Weary zig-zagging sort of way” is clearly wordy; the most obvious candidate for a cut is “sort of way.”  Also, “prepared to go down” is dubious; whenever I see “began” in amateur work, I question it, and “prepared” is similar in effect.  Usually the “began” can be cut with profit:  “He began to walk down the street” is clunky and wordy compared to “He walked down the street.”  And so on.  What does a road “preparing to go down” look like?  I think it looks like a road going down, or reaching a peak and going down.  Perhaps we want to keep the original here, because it keeps the travelers at the peak.

…it climbed to the top of a steep bank…

Where is the bank, and where is the road?  The road approaches the bank and zig-zags to the top.  Let’s look at the whole chunk again:

…it climbed to the top of a steep bank in a weary zig-zagging sort of way, and then prepared to go down for the last time.

Let’s cut some of my chatter and focus more on alternatives.  Do we like “weary”?  Perhaps, as a way of showing the “warm and tiring work” or “sweat.”  How about these:

  1. …it wriggled up a steep bank, then staggered down again for the last time.
  2. …it zigzagged up a steep bank, then sagged down the other side.

“For the last time” seems to me ambiguous, though clear enough in the context of the paragraph, which shows that the party is elevated and can see a flattish valley ahead, followed by a river.  Focusing too closely can lead to errors in understanding the original.  Compare to the original second sentence:

After some miles, however, the road ceased to roll up and down:  it climbed to the top of a steep bank in a weary zig-zagging sort of way, and then prepared to go down for the last time.

The original is contrasting a rolling up and down with the zigzag up a steep bank.  “Flattened out” alters Tolkien’s intent, which was not apparent (to me) until the fragments I’d been working with were put back together.  “Flattened out” is denied rather than contrasted by what follows.  Tolkien wanted the rolling up and down to stop by becoming a zigzag.  How about this:

  1. The day’s march looked like sweat.  After some miles of rolling up and down, the road zig-zagged up a steep bank, then prepared to stagger down again for the last time.  In front of them they saw the lower lands…

Compare it to the original below.  The revision, 3, is shorter, and I like it better except for the loss of “weary.”  The loss is perhaps recovered by “stagger.”  I’ll return to that in a moment.  More tinkering could be done, but let’s move on.  Here’s the whole original paragraph:

The day’s march promised to be warm and tiring work.  After some miles, however, the road ceased to roll up and down:  it climbed to the top of a steep bank in a weary zig-zagging sort of way, and then prepared to go down for the last time.  In front of them they saw the lower lands dotted with small clumps of trees that melted away in the distance to a brown woodland haze.  They were looking across the Woody End towards the Brandywine River.  The road wound away before them like a piece of string.

What is the point of the whole paragraph?  It would have made sense to start with this question, but working with it can change one’s perception.  “Warm and tiring work” and “weary” show the importance of the road to the characters, and, for me, surely justify the paragraph’s inclusion in the book.  The last sentence, being in the position of greatest emphasis, should reinforce this point, not lose or obscure it for an irrelevant metaphor.

The word “weary” can be defined as “feeling or showing tiredness, especially as a result of excessive exertion or lack of sleep,” which would mean that the road is being personified.  It can also mean “calling for a great amount of energy or endurance; tiring and tedious,” that is, “wearisome,” which does not personify the road.  Tolkien does not otherwise personify the road in this paragraph, so let’s not emphasize it by returning to it at the end.  In fact, “stagger” should perhaps be changed to something like “stagger-inducing.”

Here’s the third sentence:

In front of them they saw the lower lands dotted with small clumps of trees that melted away in the distance to a brown woodland haze.

“In front of them” could be “ahead.”  “Clumps of trees” looks ripe to be replaced by a single word such as “grove,” but without “trees” it doesn’t work very well, and I haven’t found a better word.  The rest of the sentence, “that melted…” etc., is suggestive but it seems like it could be sharper.  “Dissolved in the hazy distance to a brown smear” seems more explicitly visual, but perhaps strikes the reader as ugly, as it does me.

The next sentence:

They were looking across the Woody End towards the Brandywine River.  

Not much can be changed here except to remove the observers (“Beyond lay…”), or to add some emotion:

  1. The travelers were cheered to see the Brandywine River beyond the Woody End.
  2. The travelers were dismayed to see the distance still yet to travel, through the Woody End to the Brandywine River.

But these change the substance and import of the sentence and so don’t teach us much about Tolkien’s style.

The final sentence:

The road wound away before them like a piece of string.

The main feature here is the metaphor, comparing the road to string.  I find this both a bit jarring and pretty colorless.  Two thoughts:  first, the road is likely the least visually interesting feature; second, to someone walking it, the road is the most interesting feature.  Why does the road wind?  Is it avoiding the clumps of trees?  This seems likely.  So:

  1. The road twisted away among the groves like a crazed snake.

This was inspired by a quote from Willa Cather which I like very much:  “The road ran about like a wild thing.”  It’s plenty vivid, but perhaps the wrong tone.

  1. The road twisted away among the groves, crazily.
  1. The road meandered among the groves into the distance.

Here’s my best shot at putting it all together.  First the original paragraph, for the last time, I promise.

The day’s march promised to be warm and tiring work.  After some miles, however, the road ceased to roll up and down:  it climbed to the top of a steep bank in a weary zig-zagging sort of way, and then prepared to go down for the last time.  In front of them they saw the lower lands dotted with small clumps of trees that melted away in the distance to a brown woodland haze.  They were looking across the Woody End towards the Brandywine River.  The road wound away before them like a piece of string.

  1. The day’s march looked like sweat.  After some miles of rolling up and down, the road zig-zagged up a steep bank, then prepared to stagger down again for the last time.  In front of them they saw the lower lands dotted with small clumps of trees that dissolved in the hazy distance to a brown smear.  They were looking across the Woody End towards the Brandywine River.  The road meandered among the groves into the distance.

I cannot decide for the reader whether I’ve improve or mucked up Tolkien’s paragraph.  That could be debated endlessly.  The Lord of the Rings has a lot of relatively placid paragraphs, and pages, about travelers going up one hill and down another.  It can make for tedious reading.  In a way, that reflects the experience of the travelers, which might be considered a good thing; but one bores one’s readers at a potentially high cost:  they may nod off.

I’ve said nothing here about the structure of the sentences, nor many of the other possibilities mentioned in the introduction.

So that’s my example of the Subjective Microscope exercise.  I think that the paragraph I chose was an unfortunate choice; a vivid description from Charles Dickens or John Steinbeck would probably have been more productive as a teaching example, or at least more entertaining.  Maybe some day soon.  Maybe.

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