“Learn to alert your reader as soon as possible in a sentence to any change in mood from the previous sentence….Always make sure your readers are oriented.”
No, this post isn’t about mind-altering drugs — it’s about mood-altering prose!
On Writing Well by William Zinnser is one of my go-to handbooks on crafting clear, sparkling prose. And one of the things I love about it is that, just like EB White in The Elements of Style, our boy William isn’t wishy-washy. He has definite ideas about what makes for muscular, readable prose and he lets you know it. Here are some of William’s tips on using “mood changers” in your writing:
Tools of the trade — There are a host of words that do a workmanlike job of signaling to readers that a mood shift is afoot, so that they aren’t confused or surprised by your writing: “but,” “yet,” “however,” “still,” “nevertheless,” “instead,” “meanwhile,” “now,” “later,” and “today.”
Bring in the “buts” — “Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with ‘but.’ If that’s what you learned, unlearn it — there’s no stronger word at the start. It announces total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is primed for the change.”
Use “however” sparingly — If you find your prose is peppered with too many “buts,” William suggests strategically replacing some of them with “however.” “It is, however, a weaker word ans therefore needs careful placement. Don’t start a sentence with ‘however,’ — it hangs there like a wet dishrag. And don’t end with ‘however’ — by that time it has lost is howeverness. Put it as early as you reasonably can — as I did three sentences ago. Its abruptness then becomes a virtue.”
“Yet” and “nevertheless” are great simplifiers — “Either of these words at the beginning of a sentence — ‘Yet he decided to go’ or ‘Nevertheless he decided to go’ — can replace a whole long phrase that summarizes what the reader has just been told.”
Time-frame tipsters — “Meanwhile,” “now,” “today,” and “later”– all help to signal shifts in time frame and can save readers needless confusion. “Now I know better.” “Later I found out why.” Phrases like these help make sure your reader is oriented.
Equipped with these handy mood-altering helpers, let’s all write on!