Today I spent some time looking through texts for a few more readings to include in my upcoming class. I delved back into Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark. It’s definitely a great book, particularly for college composition classes, and I would highly recommend it as a text for anyone who has control over textbook choices.
The greatest thing about the text is the idea Clark presents: Writing well isn’t about establishing rules, but about applying tools. Thus, he introduces the idea of active sentences, and rather than saying you should write actively, he expresses why active writing is a useful tool. I realize those sound similar, but it’s the difference between prescribing a particular behavior as mandatory and arguing for a particular behavior as useful.
What drove me to this blog today was the chapter on parallel structure. The chapters in this text are quite short; the parallel structure one is no exception at a whopping four pages. In it, Clark begins by explaining why parallel structure is important by quoting Diana Hacker in A Writer’s Reference: “If two or more ideas are parallel, they are easier to grasp when expressed in parallel grammatical form.” This is a point I argue for fiercely in my classes.
However, Clark takes it a step further by showing how useful it can be when one establishes an expected pattern, and then breaks it intentionally. One example he presents is Superman’s raison d’etre: truth, justice, and the American way. A truly parallel construction, he writes, would be “truth, justice, and patriotism,” with each of the list elements as a single noun. Rather, the break in structure at the end makes it more memorable and, arguably, stronger.
Where it begins, however, is with the recognition of what parallel structure is. Like Hacker, I would say it is vital to use parallel structure. A well-structured sentence is easier for a reader to read and retain, and as always, it is the readers who matter most. I do a 15-minute lecture in most of my classes on parallel structure—why it is important and how it works. One point of advice I introduce is that in a list of items, each item in that list should have the same grammatical form. The biggest problem I run into in student papers is trying to combine unrelated ideas: We went to the store for milk, bread, eggs, and cash in a lottery ticket. The error is easily fixed, but the underlying problem is not recognizing how lists work.
However, I do agree with Clark on this: Breaking the rules is often an effective and valuable strategy for a writer to take. It’s hard to give that as advice, though. When you understand the rules, understand why and how they work, then you can break them in creative ways. “The American way” is a noun phrase, so it still fits the list, but it plays with the structure a little. Even the list running, jumping, climbing trees breaks structure a little, though it still retains the core of the list. The little break makes it more memorable. Sleeping Beauty’s fairy godmothers were Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather. The Three Musketeers were Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. It’s a strategy we see and hear all the time.
The most important thing, though, is that you have to understand the rule in order to break it. If you don’t, then it’s just a poorly structured sentence that a reader has to go over a couple times to get meaning from. Don’t make your reader do extra work.