Category Archives: practice writing skills

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.)

Bloated words mean longer, boring writing

Utilize.  Three syllables.  Use.  One syllable.  Why not use “use”?

Price point.  Two words.  Price.  One word.  Why not use “price”?

Vaporous.  Three syllables.  Vapid.  Two syllables. Why not use “vapid”?

Inflating your writing with multi-syllabic or multi-phrasal words when simpler words work just as well makes your writing pompous, long and hard to understand.

So why do it?

  • To sound important. In college I worked as a telephone operator, but my brother suggested I introduce myself as “an international communications coordinator.”  Nobody knew what I was talking about, and when I explained I was a phone operator, they rolled their eyes.
  • To sound educated. Many SAT words are multi-syllablic:  capricious, ephemeral, and facilitated, for example.  But isn’t it easier to understand synonyms such as flighty, short-lived and made easy?  And why do we write?  To sound educated or to be understood?
  • To please an English teacher who confuses big words with deep thinking. In fact, big words obfuscate logic (clutter your meaning) and enshroud cogitation (hide poor thinking).

What can you do to rid your writing of clutter?

  • Look for empty words. If you look, you will find.  Many empty nouns end in “tion,” “ment” and “city.”  Turn them into verbs and then search for simpler synonyms.
  • Tell yourself that big words aren’t better.  They are just bigger.
  • Look up synonyms for long words. Many English words with the most punch are ancient Anglo-Saxon words of one or two syllables.
  • Read the poetry of Robert Frost. Frost rarely used even two-syllable words, and that is no fluke.  He said good writing should be understood on a literal level the first time it is read.

Write short.

Forbidding am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being

1  What if you could not use any forms of the verb “to be”?  No am, is, are, was, were, be, been or being.  No progressive verb tenses.  Fewer passive verbs. No “that’s” or “it’s.”  Could you do it?

2  That’s what two of my high school students were asked to do on a research paper due today.  Any form of the verb “to be” was outlawed by their teacher, even if that verb was part of a direct quote.

3  With no choice, they wrote and rewrote sentences.  They pared down direct quotes or paraphrased them.  They eliminated passive voice.  And then they asked me to scour their writing to be sure no forms of “to be” still lurked.

4  And they did it!

5  I was telling this to another student, an eighth grader, whose writing we had just revised, and for the heck of it, we re-revised, eliminating the verb “to be” in all its forms.  A funny thing happened.

6  The student’s writing became more concise.  The student’s writing contained more active verbs and fewer linking verbs.  “It’s better,” the student said.  “Oops,” he added, realizing he had said “it’s.”

Let’s try the strategy on this blog now.

In paragraph 1, I cannot eliminate the forms of the verb “to be” or you might not know what I am talking about.

Paragraph 2 begins with “That’s,” meaning “that is,” and later in the sentence, contains the passive verb “were asked.”  I can rewrite that sentence to say “Two of my high school students needed to do. . .” dropping the “were asked” part.  In the next sentence “was outlawed” and “was” need to be eliminated.  Instead I can write, “Students could use no form of the verb “to be” even if the verb occurred within a direct quote.”

Paragraph 3’s last sentence contains the infinitive “to be.”  I could rewrite that sentence like this:  “And then they asked me to scour their writing until. . .”

Paragraph 4 passes okay.

Paragraph 5 begins with “I was telling.”  I could easily change that to “I told.”

Paragraph 6 passes okay.

When I first heard about the “confining” verb choices for my students’ assignment, I said to myself, “Ridiculous.”  But now I am an ardent fan of this way of writing.  The results convinced me.  Fewer words.  Tighter sentences.  Fewer linking verbs.  More specific verbs.  More active voice.

Win-win.

Summer is a great time to improve your writing!

Lots of activities shut down for June, July, and August, opening your schedule to study with experts and learn how to solve some particular writing problems–even your fear of writing.

One place you might start is at your public library.  When I visited Orlando last week, I picked up an Orange County Library System magazine, where I found five summer writing opportunities offered by that library system:

Write a novel this summer—A published author teaches “character development, plot, creating conflict, point of view, dialog, setting [and] voice.”

Writing backstory in fiction—An author-editor teaches you how to include cultural nuances and family histories “without losing the flow of the story they’re telling.”

World-building for fantasy—Another author shows how to create “believable and compelling worlds for your characters.”

First page workshop—A literary agent shows how “to polish your first page until it shines.”

Story development—A screenwriter / author explores how to come up with a good story idea.

I looked up the NYC library online, and I found it offers 19 classes on how to write during this summer, available at various branches.

My own public library system, in Gwinnett County, GA, offers several writing opportunities in June.

Memoir writing workshop–A published author shows how.

Writer’s Group–Walk-in advice from a group of writers to one another.

Writer’s workshop–A  writer of young adult fiction gives feedback for the first five pages of your book-in-progress.

Poetry writing–“Learn the essentials of expressing yourself through writing and performance.”

But libraries aren’t the only good places to flex your writing muscles.  So are your local bookstores.  The Barnes & Noble near my house has a Tuesday evening writers’ group open to everyone.  Bring copies of your latest effort, read it aloud, and learn from the feedback of published writers and wannabes.

If you’re not sure where to find writing opportunities in your community, ask your public librarian.  Librarians are trained to find almost everything.

Summer is a great time to improve your writing!

How to encourage more student writing and still have a life

If students are to improve their writing, what is the single best thing they can do?

Write  Write.  Write.

Teachers know this.  So why don’t teachers assign more writing?  To paraphrase a former President, “It’s the grading, stupid.”

Reading student writing takes a long time, but writing comments on the writing takes a life time.  A fifth grade teacher might have 28 or more student papers to grade.  A high school English teacher might have 128.

So how can a teacher, tutor, or parent encourage frequent writing without giving up her life?

Here is the solution one teacher, Jori Krulder, has found effective.

  • The teacher reads student essays without writing a word on them.
  • On separate papers, one for each student, the teacher records three things:
  • One, a score for the essay based on a rubric which the teacher and students have previously agreed upon.
  • Two, an element of writing which the student did well.
  • Three, an element of writing which the student needs to improve.
  • The teacher jots down on another paper the strengths and weaknesses of the class’s essays and adds ideas for mini-lessons to teach the whole class.
  • The teacher reports these strengths and weaknesses orally to the class.
  • The teacher returns the unmarked essays, giving each student a feedback paper to fill in. See the box.

  • While students work on their writing, the teacher meets for five minutes only with each student (taking up to three days of class time per class or section per essay). The teacher and student compare the score each gave the essay.  If the scores differ, the teacher talks to the student about the reasons for the discrepancy.  Then they talk about the rest of the information on the feedback sheet.
  • At the end of five minutes a timer rings and the conference ends. If students want to talk longer, they can visit the teacher after school.
  • Students as a group are given a resubmit date for their essays.

According to Krulder, students are able to focus on what the teacher says during the conference, take notes, and use that information to improve their essays.  The result is a noticeable improvement in the resubmitted essays.  An additional yet unexpected benefit is improvement in student-teacher relations.

For more information on Jori Krulder’s method of responding to student writing, go to edutopia.org.