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A Parallel Universe

At the top of my blog, A Mind Adrift in the West, there is a quote from Ernest Hemingway:

"Prose is architecture, not interior decoration."

Papa was a smart man, and this quote is one of my guiding lights when I sit down to write. If I build well, my story will stand up. The time to worry about the color of the walls (just to stretch this metaphor to the breaking point) comes later.

I would posit that one of the essential elements of rock-solid writing is balance -- properly weighted words, meanings, cadences. A well-designed sentence has structural integrity that promotes simple elegance and ease of reading.

One of the ways this balance is achieved lies in parallel construction.

Consider this sentence:

She wore taffeta, diamonds and had a gold ribbon in her hair.

That sentence is out of balance, and it thumps along the page like a warped wheel. The solution? Make the construction parallel:

She wore taffeta and diamonds and had a gold ribbon in her hair.

The objects are aligned with their proper verbs, and all is right with the sentence (assuming the gold ribbon and the taffeta don't clash, of course).

Here's a different parallelism problem. See if you can spot the trouble:

Her accused her of not only betraying his trust; he said she abused her relationship with his family.

This is an instance where the writer ought to be thinking about cadence in addition to structure. But also is a deft parallel for not only; the identical number of syllables in those phrases gives the sentence a pleasing lilt.

Check out the difference when the above sentence is amended:

He accused her of not only betraying his trust but also abusing her relationship with his family.

You also have to be careful about placement of the words. Let's make a slight alteration to the first sentence and see how that changes things:

Her accused her not only of betraying his trust but abusing her relationship with his family.

While that's a grammatically defensible sentence, its rhythm is way off. Try this:

He accused her not only of betraying his trust but also of abusing her relationship with his family.

The parallel elements are weighted in the same way: not only (preposition) (gerund phrase) ... but also (preposition) (gerund phrase).

It's good architecture. Papa would be proud.


Craig Lancaster's first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, was a 2009 Montana Honor Book and won the 2010 High Plains Book Award for best first book. His second, The Summer Son, will be released in January 2011 by AmazonEncore. He's also the owner and editor of Missouri Breaks Press, a boutique literary press in Billings, Mont., and offers editing, typesetting and design assistance. Learn more about him and his services at

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  1. Good example sentences, thank you. Though the typo "Her" threw me slightly off balance when I first read that sentence.

  2. Craig, this is an excellent lesson on the essential element of using the right words in the right place at the right time. Those of us who who understand the value of parallel structure—probably the same ones who were the "nerds" in English class—make these little changes during our edits. Writers are thrilled that the changes are minute, and readers cruise right past them because the smooth leads seamlessly into the next sentence/scene.

    I'm delighted to see this kind of post. So much more goes into great writing than putting words on a page. The greatest story in the world loses some of its shine when such elements as parallel structure are not addressed.

    Thank you, Craig, for this reminder! And you're so right: it's all about balance. The reader won't necessarily know what's wrong; but if the balance is missing, there's a bump in the road—and the book is a little less enjoyable.

  3. In a recent workshop, guru Margie Lawson pointed out the use of anaphora, and also the importance of listening to the cadence of your prose. This fits right in. Thanks,

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery


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