Sunday, February 22, 2015

Yes, but . . .

My sister, who is well into writing adulthood and who writes all the time admitted to me not long ago that for years she was incapable of beginning any essay or proposal without the word “although.”  Apparently, this extended through college, a master’s degree in English, and a career in not-for-profit writing. 

“Although” is a handy way to admit from the get-go that any single point the writer will make cannot be all-inclusive.  This is good thinking.  And this also gets the ink flowing: equivocation is often a good start, and you can clean things up later.

I have found, however, that this “although” beginning is not a habit shared by everyone.  In fact, I have discovered a surprising avoidance of those handy balancing words and phrases: although, however, nonetheless, notwithstanding, albeit, in spite of, even though.  We’re better at those simple affirmatives: so, therefore, because.  But these are pushy words that keep us off-balance and often rile up our readers.

Balance: this is not only necessary in exposition, in which we are explaining what we think, and, one hopes, why—and also in our own personal essays, the best of which are internal dialogues.  “I love chocolate, even though I know it’s not good for me,”  “I want to tell my neighbor her house is painted the wrong color; however, I know that would only cause trouble between us, and one day, I might need a dog-sitter.”  “My brother-in-law has terrible table manners; nonetheless, I know I need to get over this elitist position on using the right fork.”   This, but that; however (always a semi-colon before “however”), it could always be something else.”  That’s the structure of a good personal essay: “I’m thinking this way, but . . . maybe not.”

This is also a good way to think about the characters we are developing in our fiction and highly creative non-fiction:  “Sylvia was fond of winter; notwithstanding this fondness, she seemed unable to prepare for it,” “Everett hated to be around babies; however, when his great-granddaughter showed up in her mother’s arms, some kind of unexpected affection took him over.”  Good characters are rounded, complex ones: They are characters who are not one-sided or predictable.  They have those equivocal words in them.

Balancing words not only help us keep our minds open, they also keep our rhythms moving along, yet stable.  The trend toward, clean, minimalist Hemingway-like sentences does not require that we remove mental connectors or avoid logical relationships among our thoughts.  Think of the musical quality of “nonetheless,” and “notwithstanding,” and how they move a sentence or paragraph ahead while they turn our readers’ minds one way or another. 

“However” sounds different from “but,” and “but” works differently from an abrupt colon—this is more or less like the difference between a rubber band and rubber cement.  Use these words and allow elasticity of opinion and assumption.

Try writing your first sentences this way for a while.  Edit later.  Although you might not like that beginning, you’ll have something to get you started, and you can edit it later.  Notwithstanding that beginning, you can edit at another time.  In spite of that first sentence, you can move ahead and edit later.  This has always worked for me; however, I know that it might not work for you.

Winona Winkler Wendth freelance writer, editor, and writing mentor and teaches various courses in writing and the humanities at Quinsigamond Community College.  She is a cofounder of the Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative. Contact her at

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