[Tipster] The Writer as Alligator Wrestler

tipster post Oct 27, 2023

By Dave Goetz

The main work of a writer is to fix sentences.

You lay down that first sentence. You write another. And then another or two. Now you have a paragraph.

It’s time to roll up your shirtsleeves.

In her book, The Writing Life, Annie Dillard describes the job of a writer as that of an alligator wrestler: “You are a Seminole alligator wrestler. Half-naked, with your two bare hands, you hold and fight a sentence's head while its tail tries to knock you over.”

If you subdue the alligator, your reward is to grapple the next one. And then the next one. A handful of subdued sentences becomes a paragraph. And if you subdue enough paragraphs, you complete an essay, a blog post, a chapter.

The life-and-death work of writing is at the level of the sentence.

Sentence wrestlers have no shortage of techniques for the work. You can:

  • Shorten them;
  • Invert them;
  • Slice them in half and create two sentences;
  • Stitch two together and create a compound sentence;
  • Eliminate the passive voice;
  • Add the passive voice;
  • Whack the long prepositional phrase at the beginning of the sentence;
  • Whack the long prepositional phrase at the end of the sentence;
  • Switch out the verb for a more active one;
  • Switch out the verb for another one more time;
  • Cut out all the adjectives and adverbs;
  • Add color to a noun with an adjective; 
  • Manipulate the sentence so the last word creates more impact; and, finally, among many other techniques,
  • Delete the sentence entirely.

When you delete a sentence, the alligator has won. For only a moment, however.

You die a thousand deaths when you write an essay, a blog post, a chapter.

It’s only in death, though, that your writing can find resurrection. Grab that next alligator.



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