Imitate classic sentences, part 2

Several weeks ago I wrote a blog about improving sentence construction by copying sentence structures of good writers.  (See my blog “Imitate classic sentences to improve your writing. ) The type sentences I discussed then were cumulative sentences, sometimes called additive sentences, which informally add more information as the sentence goes on, as this sentence does.

Today I would like to discuss copying the structure of more formal sentences created by careful planning.  They “breathe” conviction and confidence, according to Stanley Fish, author of How to Write a Sentence.

One example is the opening sentence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:  “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”  Another such sentence is the first sentence of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:  “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Still another is the opening clauses of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities:  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  These sentences encourage the reader to pause and consider their meanings for truth, for irony, and for insight.

How can you create your own such sentences?  According to Fish, you should analyze sentences you recognize as great, remove the content and fill in the structure with your own content.  (It’s like baking a potato, scooping out the center, and then filling the skin with your homemade chili.)  To do this, Fish advises you to

  • write short sentences.
  • use parallel structures.
  • use one- or two-syllable words
  • use the present tense.

Here are some examples I wrote:

“When taking a trip with kids, go to playgrounds first before you run out of sunny days and sunny spirits.”  Let’s analyze this sentence using Fish’s advice.

  • Write short sentences.  20 words
  • Use parallel structures.  “sunny days and sunny spirits”
  • Use one- or two-syllable words.  14 one-syllable words, 6 two-syllable words, 0 three-syllable words
  • Use present tense.  Done

Here is another.  “Keep your children close and your spouse closer.”

  • Write short sentences.  8 words
  • Use parallel structure.  “Keep your children close and [keep] your spouse closer.”
  • Use one- or two-syllable words. 6 one-syllable words, 2 two-syllable words, 0 three-syllable words
  • Use present tense.  Done

And another:  “When soldiers drill from dawn to dusk on borders dense with tanks and such,  beware of Trojan horses.”

  • Write short sentences:  18 words
  • Use parallel structure.  “from dawn to dusk,” “with tanks and such”
  • Use one- or two-syllable words.  13 one-syllable words, 5 two-syllable words, 0 three-syllable words
  • Use present tense.  Done

When could you use such sentences?

  • the opening sentences of a novel, short story, or speech
  • the closing of a letter or an article or a chapter
  • a “gotcha ya!” retort from a character or yourself
  • the moral of a story

According to Fish, the more you write these sentences, the easier you write them.  And the easier they become, the more you use them.  (Did you notice?  I just wrote two of them.)

Supplemental college essay prompts vary from none to seven, from matter-of-fact to fanciful, in 2022-2023

For the 2022-2023 college application season, many colleges require students to submit supplemental essays in addition to the Common Application essay.  Some schools, like American University, require just one supplemental essay.  “Why are you interested in American University?” (100 words)  Bard College is more succinct:  Why Bard? (250 words)  So is Yale.  “Why Yale?”

Other colleges require several supplemental essays.  Agnes Scott College in Atlanta requires six essays of varying lengths:

  • Please tell us why you chose to apply to Agnes Scott College? (50-100 words)
  • Describe at least one quality of leadership that you have learned in high school either through direct experience or by observation of another leader? (5-50 words)
  • What global issue can you imagine yourself addressing during your time at Agnes Scott? (5-50 words)
  • Optional: If you are involved in community service, what project has been your favorite and why? (5-50 words)
  • If you could visit anywhere, where would you go and why? (200 characters)
  • What’s your favorite book you have read outside the classroom (not assigned reading) and why? (200 characters)
  • Tell us about a leader that you admire. Who are they? How have they influenced you? (5-100 words)

Did you notice that none of these “essays” should be more than 100 words, and that two of them should be measured in characters?  (An essay of 200 characters?  Hmm.  This paragraph is about 200 characters.)

Here are some other supplemental essays, chosen by me for the brevity of the question.

  • “What is your favorite word and why?” University of Virginia
  • “Be yourself,” Oscar Wilde advised. “Everyone else is taken.” Introduce yourself. Dartmouth College
  • “Share a time when you were awestruck.” Emory University
  • “How did you spend your last two summers?” Stanford University
  • “What is the truest thing that you know?” Villanova University

Williams College has done away with any writing requirement in its application process.  However, it offers the option of submitting a three- to five- page academic paper, completed in the past year.

And then there is Rice University.  Instead of asking students to submit an essay, Rice asks them to submit a captionless image that appeals to them.  Apparently, no explanation is required.

College application season has opened with these essay prompts

If your high school senior hopes to attend a US college next year, he or she can begin the application process now.  Application season for the 2023-2024 freshman class opened on August 1.

 

Part of that application process is writing an essay—or several essays, depending on the college.  You should check with each college you plan to attend to see which essay prompts they accept.  Many colleges accept essays from the “Common Application” or the “Coalition for College” prompts.  Below are those essay prompts.  An acceptable essay would contain no more than 650  words (two pages, double spaced, 12 point type).

Common Application essay prompts

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Another option would be to describe the effect Covid 19 had on you.

Coalition for College essay prompts

  1. Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
  2. What interests or excites you? How does it shape who you are now or who you might become in the future?
  3. Describe a time when you had a positive impact on others. What were the challenges? What were the rewards?
  4. Has there been a time when an idea or belief of yours was questioned? How did you respond? What did you learn?
  5. What success have you achieved or obstacle have you faced? What advice would you give a sibling or friend going through a similar experience?
  6. Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

Six writing problems—and solutions—for children with ADHD

Writing, like reading, is really many skills used together to produce a product.  These skills include:

prewriting skills (deciding on a topic, narrowing it down to one main idea, gathering information, and sequencing it),

composition skills (figuring out how to begin, sticking to the plan, concluding, writing in complete sentences, including details, and using good vocabulary, grammar, spelling and punctuation),

revising skills (adding missing information, reordering ideas or sentences, deleting off-topic information, and confining or expanding information to the desired length),

editing skills (checking for grammar, spelling and punctuation),

handwriting legibly, and

finishing by the deadline.

For children without ADHD, integrating all these skills produces anxiety.  But for children with ADHD, writing might produce tears, temper tantrums, and shut-downs.  Yet there are ways to mitigate the fear of writing, and with time, to overcome it.

Some of the most noticeable problems ADHD students face when writing and some solutions to those problems include

Staying focused long enough to remember what to say. One solution is demanding that students create a written organizer.  It can start as a list of ideas/details related to the topic.  Then students can group the related details, using colored highlighters to identify what ideas go together.  Lastly the student can number the colors in the order in which he/she wants to use them in the writing passage.  Teachers need to model how to create such organizers and how to implement them, over and over, until students realize organizing before they begin is as much a part of writing as is using a pencil.  Later, as students advance, writing a thesis and subtopic sentences can become part of the prewriting organizer.

Figuring out how to start and how to conclude. Looking at that blank piece of paper can be daunting.  One solution is for a teacher or parent to brainstorm various ways to begin and end with the student, and to write those beginning sentences and ending sentences as options.  You might think, but the student is supposed to do the work himself.  Eventually, yes, but not when the student begins.  When you learned to walk, didn’t you have an adult right there to catch you when you stumbled, and to lift you up again?  When you learned to ride a bike, didn’t you have an adult running at your side to keep you balanced and to “launch” you?  Students need adults “launching” them in the writing process too.  With enough practice, students will gain the skills to start writing and to conclude on their own.  But at first, they need an adult to provide models of good writing.

Sticking to one main idea. Following organizers will keep students on course.  An adult should ask the student to read aloud his in-process work, and the adult should match the sentences with the organizer.  Students might not realize they have drifted off-course.  It’s important to discover off-topic information quickly, before students have invested too much time and too many sentences into information that needs to be deleted.

Using correct grammar, spelling and punctuation. One method to deal with these kinds of errors is to allow students to write without regard to them.  Then, after the compositions are finished, go back and help students fix some of them.  One time, focus on run-on sentences.  Another time focus on apostrophes.  If the student is expected to fix all his errors as he goes along, he will lose the flow of his writing and might never finish.  Another method to deal with grammar, spelling and punctuation errors is to give two grades—one for composition and one for conventions.  Or give one grade for composition only.

Taking time to revise and edit.  ADHD students are impulsive.  They tire quickly of activities where they need to sit still and focus.  Yet revising and editing are necessary steps to produce good writing.  One solution is to separate the revising process from the composing process.  Do composing today and revising tomorrow.  Do twenty minutes before recess and twenty minutes after.  Write post-it notes to students, identifying one problem for each student.   If Jimmy can’t identify run-ons, underline the run-ons he needs to fix and ignore the other problems.  If Mary can’t figure out when or how to use apostrophes, underline the words which might need them.  Help them start on the revision process so they needn’t start from scratch.  Not every piece of writing needs to be perfect.

Writing legibly. Allow students to use computers, laptops, iPads or other electronic devices to write school assignments.  Not only allow them, but teach students how to use these devices during writing classes.  Show them how to swipe a sentence and move it to a better location.  Show them how to look up spelling or synonyms.  Show them how to indent or double space or to do whatever helps them to write better.

Like all skill-based activities, writing well depends on practice.  If a teacher assigns one writing assignment a month or a semester, the student will not improve.  Yet, this is often the case since reading and marking student writing is time-consuming.  If your child is not assigned writing weekly, then you, as the parent, can assign it.  If you think you are not qualified, may I suggest you buy my writing instruction book, How to Write a 5th Grade (or Any Other Grade) Essay, available on Amazon.  Everything I’ve talked about here is included there but in more detail.

If you hope your child will attend college or professional school, he or she will need to be able to write.   Reading and writing are two of the most basic skills your child needs to do well in life.  Don’t let fear of writing (his or yours) handicap your child.

 

Imitate classic sentences to improve your writing

Do you want to improve the sentences you write?  One way to do that is to imitate classic sentences, according to Stanley Fish, author of How to Write a Sentence (2011).  A sentence form he recommends imitating is the additive (cumulative) sentence.  This form of writing seems spontaneous because it shifts back and forth, digresses, repeats, and loses itself in details—much like the speech of some people.

How do you recognize such a sentence?  Many are compound sentences, or if not compound, then containing compound subjects, predicates, and phrases.  They use coordinating conjunctions, especially “and,” “but” and “or.”  One word or idea is not more important than another.  They mostly use one- and two-syllable words.

Why would you want to use such sentences?

  • To show spontaneity, distractedness, and randomness of thought.
  • To write in a way which seems unplanned and lighthearted.
  • To create dialog which ambles from one thought to another.

Ernest Hemingway is one of the best known writers of additive sentences.  Here, for example, is one such sentence from A Farewell to Arms (1929):  “In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.”

Where do you begin to imitate such a sentence?  One way is to identify its structural components.  It starts with 1) a prepositional phrase showing a general location; 2)that phrase is followed by  “there” plus the verb “to be” followed by two nouns acting as subjects; 3) they are followed by two adjectives connected by “and”; 4) they are followed by another prepositional phrase showing location; 5) “and” is followed by another noun acting as subject of the second clause; 6) then come three adjectives describing that noun; and 7) and another prepositional phrase related to the subject of the second clause ends the sentence.

Or and easier way is to substitute the words in Hemingway’s sentence with your own words.  That’s what I did to come up with the following three additive sentences:

  • Example 1: In the fur of the dog there are fleas and more fleas, jumping in the moonlight, and the dog scratches and twists and bleeds from the bites.
  • Example 2: In the driveway to the house there are drifts, blowing snow, cold and white in the storm, and the snow is thick and racing fast and scurrying over the driveway.
  • Example 3: On the test in Miss Mathers’ class, there are short answers and essays, some easy and some hard, and the students must think and decide quickly and write in their bluebooks.

If you practice creating enough sentences like these, using various additive forms, you will become good at it, and these kinds of sentences will occur naturally to you, expanding the sentence universe you can rely on.

(For a related topic, see a previous blog on Hemingway’s writing rules.)