Category Archives: declarative sentence

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.)

Coherence, the most important element in writing

Writing well requires following certain steps in sequence:

  • Narrowing your topic
  • Organizing your information, including writing an overarching topic sentence or thesis and subtopic sentences or plot lines
  • Writing a first draft
  • Revising, revising, revising
  • Editing

Once your first draft is complete, revising becomes most important.  So many tasks comprise revising—checking for complete sentences, tightening wordiness, analyzing ideas for logic, honing vocabulary, fixing grammar errors, adding figures of speech and style.  Students wonder where to begin.

Begin with coherence, the most important element of writing.  Coherence means making sure all your sentences make sense and flow from one to another.  Coherence means making sure your readers understand what you mean—easily, at first read, without an interpreter.

How do you do that?  Some ways include:

  • Make sure every sentence in the body paragraphs supports the thesis. If you use an anecdote, make sure it is an example of the ideas in the thesis.  If you use a simile or metaphor, make sure it fits with the topic.  If the topic is igneous rock, for example, the simile “as hot as the steam from a steam boat” is off topic, whereas “as hot as a lava lake” is on topic.
  • If you use numbers (three kinds of rocks, five members of my family, one favorite memory), check that you have named all the numbers and no more.
  • Use logical transitions. “Because” means something causes something else.  Make sure you have named a cause and an effect if you use “because.”  “Finally” means the last one in a series or the last point.  If you have only two or three points, you shouldn’t use “finally.” You should use “secondly,” or “next,” or “third.”
  • If you use a pronoun, make sure you have named the noun the pronoun refers back to. And make sure you have named that noun before you use the pronoun (not “When she fell, Mary broke her arm,” but “When Mary fell, she broke her arm.”  If you use “this,” make sure your reader can know in a word or phrase what “this” refers to.  If “this” is vague or complicated, add a noun after “this” (this situation, this erosion, this loss of interest).  If you have two women talking, make sure if you use “she,” the reader knows which one you are referring to.  Otherwise, use her name or title or position.
  • Check that your sentences are complete thoughts–not fragments or run-ons.  Make sure your complex sentences contain no more than two dependent clauses so readers needn’t hold multiple ideas in their minds at once.  Check that your sentences vary in length, with most more than ten and fewer than 20 words.
  • Change your weak, vapid verbs to active, dynamic verbs.  Eliminate the verb “to be” and passive voice verbs.

If what you write lacks coherence, no matter how specific the vocabulary, no matter how beautiful the description, no matter how lofty your aim, your writing will flop.  Your writing must make sense to a reader without you standing at her elbow explaining, “Well, what I mean is. . .”

13 writing tips

The father of one of my students asked me if I could provide his son with a short guide his son could keep near his computer and use while writing.  Here it my suggestion.

Create a detailed prewriting organizer before you write.  Use it.

Make sure you follow directions if you are writing a response.  Cite?  Paraphrase?  Summarize?  Analyze?  Two instances?  Three?

Write the thesis sentence first before you write any other sentence if you are writing an essay.

Decide who your main character is and the problem he or she will face before you write your first sentence if you are writing a narrative.

Read your first draft aloud.  Does every sentence make sense?  Do you follow your organizer?  If something is missing, include it.  If something is irrelevant, delete it.

Make sure every body paragraph supports the thesis of your essay.

Make sure every action moves the main character closer to solving his or her problem in your narrative.

Identify weak or overused verbs and replace them with specific verbs.

Identify and vary sentence structures.  Especially include complicated simple sentences and complex sentences.

Show, don’t tell.  If you are concluding, you are telling.

Search for your typical grammar mistakes and fix them.

Add more precise details such as names, numbers, dates, locations, direct quotes, dialog, examples, thoughts, precise descriptions and sensory information.

Do revise.  First drafts are seldom good enough.

What is FANBOYS?

FANBOYS is an acronym for the seven words recognized in English as coordinating conjunctions.  Those words are

  • For
  • And
  • Nor
  • But
  • Or
  • Yet
  • So.

Using these words is an acceptable way to join two or more nouns, verbs, and many other grammatical constructions, including independent clauses.  When independent clauses are joined they form a compound sentence.

The FANBOYS acronym is an easy way for children to remember which words can be used to form compound sentences.  If one of these coordinating conjunctions is used, then a comma must be used after the first clause unless the clause has only a few words.

Some people use “then” as if it were a coordinating conjunction, but it isn’t.  “Then” is an adverb and cannot join two clauses unless a coordinating conjunction is also used.

Another way to form a compound sentence is to use a semicolon.  When a semicolon is used, no coordinating conjunction is used.  Clauses joined by a semicolon must be related in content.

Other conjunctions, called subordinate conjunctions, are used to join one independent clause and one or more dependent / subordinate clauses.  Complex sentences join two clauses of unequal weight while compound sentences usually join two clauses of equal weight.

Beginning readers needn’t know about coordinating conjunctions.  By third grade students are learning rules of grammar.  That is when they usually encounter FANBOYS for the first time.

Beginning writers sometimes think that if they use a coordinating conjunction to join two little sentences, they are writing better.  Sometimes they are.  But sometimes they are just creating stringy sentences.

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.