Five ways to write with style

Stylish, polished writing can be reduced to five elements, according to the author of more than 1,000 columns for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  Dr. Stephen Wilbers* offers these five elements, which I have paraphrased.

Write concisely. Avoid wordy phrases, omit blah adjectives and adverbs, and replace nouns with action verbs.

Use vivid vocabulary.

Show, don’t tell by writing precise, concrete detail.

Listen for rhythm in your writing by reading it aloud and by varying sentence lengths.

Infuse your personality into your writing.

* http://www.wilbers.com/style.htm

What percent of your sentences should be compound sentences?

I came across an intriguing statistic in a book* for teachers of writing.  A study of 20 well known writers, including Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck, showed they used compound sentences no more than nine percent of the time.

Or said another way, these classic American writers wrote simple and complex sentences more than 90 percent of the time.

Ever since, I have told my students to strive for a majority of complicated simple sentences.  An uncomplicated simple sentence is good from time to time, especially after a long, complicated simple sentence or a long complex sentence.  But too many uncomplicated simple sentences make writing seem childish.

What is an uncomplicated simple sentence?  All the sentences in this paragraph are.  What is a complicated simple sentence?  All the other sentences in this blog except for the second sentence are.

Often you can tell an uncomplicated simple sentence by its length.  It’s short, usually fewer than ten words.

*Notes Toward a New Rhetoric:  Six Essays for Teachers by Francis Christensen, 1967.

How to encourage kids to write

The best way to improve your writing is to write more.  Writing is a skill which improves with practice.  But how do you get kids to practice writing?

The blog Daily Writing Tips offers ten ways.  Let me paraphrase a few of them.

Encourage students to read, read, read.  Reading isn’t writing, true.  But if students read widely, they encounter all kinds of writing styles.  Subconsciously they discern what is good writing.

Encourage students to write stories for younger kids. If students are in third grade, have them write for kindergarteners, using themes and words kindergarteners understand.  By doing so, students consider audience, style of writing, how complicated to make the plot, what kinds of characters to include, the setting—all elements of stories.

Encourage students to keep going even if they know there are mistakes.  Professional writers don’t stop to fix every mistake as they write.  No, they know they will go back later and fix mistakes.  Once students are in the “flow” of writing, they should push on.

Encourage students to keep journals and to share those journals.  With partners or in small groups they can share their writing and receive feedback.  Positive feedback is so important to motivate a student to keep writing.

Encourage students to ask for help.  Some parents think students should write alone and confer with a teacher only when the writing is done.  Wrong.  Conferring during the writing process allows students to ask questions about verb tenses, a better way to say something, the meaning of a word, and plot possibilities.  The teacher becomes not the judge but the helper.

And I would add an idea of my own.  Write with students.  Ask them questions as you write, so they can see you welcome their help.  Share your writing when it is done, warts and all.  Model the behavior you hope they will use with you.  Let them help you.

Savoring great sentences

Good writers try to make their sentence structure invisible so that we readers are 100% engrossed in the meaning of the writing without being distracted by the grammar.  But when I read really good writing, I go back to analyze why it seems so effortless, so perfect.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.Sometimes I find incredible sentences.  Here is one of my favorite cumulative sentences, jotted down many years ago, its source now unknown to me.

“He stood at the top of the stairs and watched me, I waiting for him to call me up, he hesitating to come down, his lips nervous with the suggestion of a smile, mine asking whether the smile meant come, or go away.”

Isn’t that a great sentence?  It contains 43 words.  Usually 43-word sentences are hard to follow unless they are a list.  But this simple sentence is easy to follow.  Why?

It starts with an independent clause using all single-syllable words:  a subject (he) and two verbs (stood and watched).  Next are two phrases with parallel ideas about the two people (I and he) expressed in parallel grammar (I waiting, he hesitating).  The last two lines are also parallel ideas expressed in similar ways.  The first starts with “his lips,” and the second starts with the pronoun, “mine,” referring to her lips.

Adding to the clarity of this long sentence are the organic transitions.  The first line introduces the two people, “he” and “me”; the second line uses “I,” “him” and “me”; the third uses “he”; the fourth uses “his”; and the fifth uses “mine.”

Also adding to the sentence’s goodness is the use of “up” and “down” to create a visual image of the situation.  In the independent clause we learn a male is at the top of the stairs; in the next phrase we learn that another person is waiting to be called up by him; in the next line the word “down” is used.

Another organic transition is his “lips” and his “smile”; in the last line the word “smile” is repeated.

And finally, there are the last three words.  “Or go away” comes as a surprise.  Wait!  Did I understand this right? the reader asks, going back and re-evaluating what the sentence might really mean.  You have been bewitched by a master writer.

Are you a sentence saver?  If so, you must be a writer.

How to write more gut-wrenching words

If you want a gut-wrenching reaction from your readers, replace words with many syllables.  Instead, use single-syllable words.  And change long  nouns and adjectives into verbs.

girl writing and thinkingUse short, pithy words that have peppered English for centuries rather than words derived from French or Latin to arouse the greatest response.  Words with many syllables tend to be intellectual words, not emotional words.  For emotion, choose blunt words.  But be careful to check for tone and meaning.  Old words can have many meanings and many connotations.

Here are some examples.  Replace each of the boldfaced words with one of the suggestions.  Then ask yourself:  Does the meaning change?  Does the emotion?

1.  As the lion approached, I felt trepidation.  (fear, quaking, shivers, creeps, chills, a cold sweat)  Now take out “felt” and create a new verb from one of the suggestions.  (quaked, shivered, sweated)  Which grabs you?

2.  My insatiable brother ate both drumsticks from the turkey.  (greedy, gobbling, piggish, hoggish, swinish)  Now replace “ate” with a specific verb.  (gobbled, devoured, downed, dispatched, wolfed down)  Notice how replacing the verb gives a stronger visual image than replacing the adjective?

3.  Before the audition, the dancer’s legs fidgeted.  (jerked, itched, twitched)

4.  The corpulent passenger could not fit into the airline seat.  (fat, obese, fleshy, stout, portly, pudgy, plump, chubby)  Now replace “fit” with a more specific verb.  (compress, squish, squeeze, crush)

5.  The color of the girl’s eyes captivated the photographer.  (charmed, ensnared, bewitched)

Long words are not only harder to read, but they lessen the emotional impact.  If you want to appeal to emotions, use short Anglo-Saxon words.

 

SAT essay: Should you write a separate summary or weave it together with the persuasive techniques?

Should you separate the summary from the analysis when you write your SAT essay?

I recommend you separate your summary and analysis.  Here’s why:  it’s easier.

You want to be sure to include a complete summary in your response as well as a complete analysis of the persuasive techniques used in the prompt.  If you write the summary as a separate paragraph, you are sure you have supplied a complete summary.  If you weave the summary and analysis together, you might leave part of your summary unsaid.

Weaving all the elements into your response in an integrated way might be possible.  But more likely, your summary or your analysis will suffer.  It will be clearer to you as you write that you are covering what you need to if you isolate the two important elements, the summary and the analysis.

Weaving everything together is a more elegant way to write, but it is also a more difficult way to write.  The exam is stressful enough without adding another layer of difficulty.  Unless you have received perfect scores on AP lang or AP lit, I would not attempt it.

There is not one perfect way of writing your response.  Rather, there are several good ways.  Focus your time on the analysis part of your response; that is the part whose score is usually lowest.  Focusing on that part of the essay can improve your score the most.

What are persuasive techniques used in the SAT essay prompt?

Most students writing the SAT essay find summarizing the persuasive essay prompt to be easier than explaining why the prompt persuades.  But analyzing and explaining the prompt is an important part of your essay response.  It is an area where you can pull ahead if you know how to do it.

There are many reasons why a prompt might be persuasive.  Let’s list some of them here.

____ academic vocabulary:  precise, domain specific words

____ allusions, especially to the Bible or Shakespeare

____ analogies

____ anecdotes

____ attacking, undermining other opinions / counterarguments

____ clarity

____ colloquial language

____ current events references

____ examples, spot-on and easy to understand

____ experts, authorities in agreement with the author

____ facts, lots of facts

____ figures of speech

____ historical references

____ humor

____ inclusive language, including the reader with words like “we” and “us”

____ logical presentation such as using cause/effect, sequential information, chronological information, ranking of info

____ personal experience, education, or work of the author

____ primary source references

____ repetition

____ rhetorical questions

____ sensory language such as vivid images, sounds, smells, textures and tastes

____ statistics

When you analyze why the essay prompt is persuasive, you must identify several of the above techniques which the author uses.  You must give one or more examples of the techniques you identify.  And you must explain why using each technique persuades readers to the author’s point of view.

More of that in future blogs.