Applying the Principles of Feng Shui to Your Writing
I often think of sentence structure as a kind of feng shui for words.
Feng shui (fung shway) is the ancient art of arranging objects to create harmony in one’s life. The complex Chinese philosophy became popular among home-design gurus in the late-20th and early-21st centuries, and there’s still no shortage of advice on things like setting up your bedroom for “love, relationship, popularity and baby luck.” Feng shui guidance includes arranging your home into sectors influencing specific areas of your life; Real Simple’s “8 Point Guide to a Feng Shui House” includes setting out fresh flowers in the money sector.
I’ve never studied feng shui formally, but I’ve felt its principles in my own home. Many times, I’ve found myself arranging and rearranging a room because it just doesn’t feel right; something is off. Maybe the sofa is placed so that anyone entering the room has to walk in front of people sitting on it. What if we moved it near the middle of the room? Ahhh, that’s it!
Every word knows its place
Sentences give me that same falling-into-place satisfaction when I finally get them arranged so their message is clear and direct.
This isn’t always a simple matter of ordering them into subject — verb — object. Take this:
We are traveling to our grandmother’s house to have Thanksgiving dinner in our car.
“Traveling to our grandmother’s house to have Thanksgiving dinner” seems like it ought to stay together as one thought, doesn’t it? But not with “in our car” at the end — unless you do plan to have dinner in the car.
Change it to “We are traveling in our car to our grandmother’s house to have Thanksgiving dinner” and it falls into place.
(Or you could simply employ my “When in doubt, weasel out” rule, and eliminate the unnecessary “in our car.” After all, does your mode of transportation really matter in the story?)
Or, take this:
The goal of the committee is to keep the lines of communication between merchants and city officials open.
The verb here, “to keep,” does properly belong between the subject, “the goal of the committee,” and the object, “the lines of communication between merchants and city officials.”
The problem is there’s far too much distance between “to keep” and “open.” The reader can lose track of the whole point by the time they reach the end.
And so, we rewrite:
The goal of the committee is to keep open the lines of communication between merchants and city officials.
Now, doesn’t that feel better?
Watch your words
Bad structure, by the way, doesn’t just wear out the reader. It can communicate something entirely different from what you intend. Compare these two sentences:
She enjoys relaxing in her PJs with her family.
She enjoys relaxing with her family in her PJs.
That’s got to be a pretty big pair of PJs.
Takeaway tip for good sentence structure
Carefully read complex sentences to be sure they’re communicating what you wish to say. Try different arrangements until it all falls into place.