09 December 2012

Composition 101

Random Thoughts, Great Ideas and the Elements of Style

The writing process, by any other name, is the series of steps that takes the writer from a goal to a collection of related ideas, to organized drafts and to a finished piece. If a term paper, an office memo or a blog post is your goal, the process is the same. The exercise is called “composition.”

Good writing has an aim, is structured and must be composed. The purpose, or aim, of a written piece can be any number of things. Some examples are: to instruct, to lay out an argument that persuades, to describe an experience, to flesh out a point of view or to tell a story. To begin writing, you need ideas.

Let’s Collect Our Thoughts. If we were paid for our thoughts, we’d all be millionaires. Our minds are either at work or wandering in aimless thought. It can take great effort to quiet the mind. Yogis spend years practicing meditation so they can still the mind and achieve a state of restful alertness.

It’s easy for us to imagine likely events in the life of the quarrelsome couple who was with us in line at the supermarket. We may have a vivid idea what our boss or spouse will say and do if we can’t keep the big appointment. We know firsthand the unbridled joy of a child’s laughter.

Maybe in some future time, a computer will be able to capture our thoughts, reduce them to writing and save them to a searchable database. This would be an invaluable service for writers. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet.

Let’s Distill Our Best Ideas. It’s a pity how often we dismiss a thought as trivial and unworthy of daylight only to admire the same thought when it falls from the lips of someone we respect. How often do we wonder in amazement to see a sliver of our own notion, or of our own experience, recounted in the writings of another?

Artists Compose.
The task of a composer is to organize his ideas into a pleasing and self-sustaining whole, using the elements of his art. The painter is concerned with lines, shapes, figures, contrast and color. The composer of music is concerned with notes, chords, tempo, harmonies and melodies.

Writers also Compose.
Most of us can recall a class or an assignment of English Composition. I don’t remember it being explained to me this way, but the goal of composition is to create a piece by organizing related parts.

The most basic unit in writing is an idea in the form of a sentence. A writer's ideas can take the form of facts, impressions, anecdotes and arguments. The writer begins with a list of related ideas, builds on a theme and sub-themes and organizes it into a framework.

Like the composer of music, the goal of the writer is to create a final piece that develops its theme harmoniously and can stand on its own merit.

I always had trouble with the self-sustaining part in elementary school. When asked why I didn’t mention a crucial point in an essay, my very serious reply was, “I thought the teacher knew that.”

The First Draft is Never a Masterpiece. Arriving at the final piece involves time and effort invested in rewriting. The first few drafts can always be improved. Grammar and usage may have to be corrected. Your story may need tweaking to evoke the right mood and to strike the proper emphasis. The argument may need to be restated and made to sound more convincing. You may need to clarify an important point that is glossed over. You may have to reorganize your thoughts so that a unifying theme stands out more clearly for the reader.

Follow Rules and Conventions. It is no coincidence that the most graceful ballerina will be found among those who have mastered the basics of their art. Don’t look at rules and conventions as stifling constraints; rather, use them to elevate your art form. Your talent will shine if you master the basics.

William Shakespeare used iambic pentameter to structure verses in his plays and sonnets. It elevated his art. No one suggests that his adherence to convention limited his art. And no one suggests that he used this meter as a crutch because he didn’t have enough talent.

Painting: Jean-Marc Nattier, Terpsichore, Muse of Music and Dance, Circa 1789

What has your experience with English Composition been like?


  1. "Arriving at the final piece involves time and effort invested in rewriting. The first few drafts can always be improved."

    Your statement is so true. The important thing is to write your first thoughts as quickly as possible to have it in written form. The rewrite is when your work transforms into a composition and possibly a work of art.

    Your composition is well written, clear, concise, understandable, and helpful.

    Thank you,
    Diana Freeman

    1. Thanks for commenting Diana and thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you found the post helpful.

  2. The aim of a composition and the task, in general, of composing should always be with the goal of creating a work of art, regardless of what you're composing---music, writing, painting, etc.

    If we don't shoot for it to become a masterpiece (even if it's only a masterpiece in our own eyes), then what are we shooting for at all?

    Gary, a lot of good points you've made here. Although, sometimes rules and conventions need to be broken. Some are outdated, some don't apply, and some are just fun to break.

    However, it seems only those who are masters of the basic rules are the ones who are the most successful in strategically breaking them. "Ya gotta know 'em before ya can break 'em." :)

    1. I agree with your point about rules, Demetria. If it's for an artistic effect, then by all means the artist should go for it.


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