Stack Those Words (Part 1)

Now that we’ve determined the value of words and begun to add to our vocabulary bank, we need to utilize these words to their fullest potential. Though it’s considered a creative art form, there is structure to writing. Words stack naturally in a specific order.

“A brown large bear” doesn’t sound right. Why is that? The meaning is the same, yet we would never express it that way. The natural stack – or order – would obviously be, “A large brown bear.”

Natural stacking was a challenge for me to explain while I taught English as a second language. My students spent months learning and memorizing vocabulary, only to then, after all that work, be told, “a brown large bear” is wrong. Needless to say, my explanation was vague. In the end – mostly for the sake of time management – I deferred to the ill-old phrase, “Because I said so.”

I wish I had told them that we end a sentence with the strongest word, that we stack words from least complex to most complex.

Here’s why.

If we end a sentence with the strongest word (and by the strongest, it’s usually the most vivid), we end on a high note.

High notes are memorable. A reader may not remember what color the animal was, but they remember the animal was a bear. Almost everyone knows what a bear looks like, so leaving a reader with the image of sharp teeth, dark claws, and a hairy body is powerful. Powerful enough to get them to read on to the next sentence.

What if we have a longer sentence that stacks a list? Let’s take the above sentence for example:

“Almost everyone knows what a bear looks like, so leaving a reader with the image of sharp teeth, dark claws, and a hairy body is powerful.”

That sentence was stacked incorrectly. What’s the most vivid of the bolded? Where should the most vivid go? Rearrange the sentence. Did you get:

“Almost everyone knows what a bear looks like, so leaving a reader with the image of a hairy body, dark claws, and sharp teeth is powerful.”

Does that not sound more memorable? Stacking also applies to paragraphs. We’ll look more closely at that next week.

This is definitely more of a habit of writing to get into (if you haven’t already). Self-editing becomes verrrry time consuming if not. Also, it’s much easier finding better ways to stack words when it’s not your own work. Can you find some sentences in my prologue that should be stacked differently?

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