Category Archives: writing tips

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.)

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.)

Three wrong ways to introduce a citation

Suppose you are researching how the novel To Kill a Mockingbird was reviewed when it first was published.  You find the July 13, 1960, review by Herbert Mitgang in The New York Times. In the review you find words worth citing.  How do you introduce the citation?  Let’s look at some examples, returning to the image of the hamburger and bun.

[First, you introduce your source, the top bun of the hamburger:]  The New York Times reviewed To Kill a Mockingbird when the book came out.  [Second, you introduce the citation, the hamburger:]  It says Mockingbird is “a winning first novel by a fresh writer with something significant to say.”  [Third, you give your opinion why this citation is significant, the bottom bun of the hamburger:]  The Times writer singles out both the novel’s writer and its message.

Now, let’s leave out the bracketed information:  The New York Times reviewed To Kill a Mockingbird when the book came out.  It says Mockingbird is “a winning first novel by a fresh writer with something significant to say.”  The Times writer singles out both the novel’s writer and its message.

What’s wrong?  Several things.  First, did The New York Times review Mockingbird or did a person?  If it was a person, the name of that person should be identified.  Second, can you, the research paper writer, identify the date when the review was published?  If so, including that specific information increases the credibility of your source.  And third, since a pronoun needs to have an antecedent, what is the antecedent to “It,” the first word of the second sentence?  There is none.

Better:  The New York Times published a book review by Herbert Mitgang of To Kill a Mockingbird on July 13, 1960, when the novel was published.  Mitgang says Mockingbird is “a winning first novel by a fresh writer with something significant to say.”  Mitgang singles out both the novel’s writer and its message for praise.

Suppose we keep the “better” citation with one change:  The New York Times published a book review by Herbert Mitgang of To Kill a Mockingbird on July 13, 1960, when the novel was published.  Here it is.  Mockingbird is “a winning first novel by a fresh writer with something significant to say.”  Mitgang singles out both the novel’s writer and its message for praise.

Here what is?  The last noun in the previous sentence is “novel.”  Yet “Here it is” does not refer to the novel.  “Here it is” refers to the review.  “Here it is” is a poor transition from the upper bun of the hamburger to the hamburger itself.

Let’s try again with another change.  The New York Times published a book review by Herbert Mitgang of To Kill a Mockingbird on July 13, 1960, when the novel was published.  The quote is “a winning first novel by a fresh writer with something significant to say.”  Mitgang singles out both the novel’s writer and its message for praise.

The word “The” before the word “quote” indicates a particular quotation.  Yet no particular quotation is mentioned in the previous sentence.  “The quote” refers back to nothing.  An improvement would be, “A quote from that review” but even that improvement is not as good as naming the person doing the quoting.

When you are introducing a direct quote,

  • Introduce the quotation with the name of the person or organization responsible for the quote. For example, The US Congress passed an act which says, “. . .”
  • Identify additional details to put the quote in context. Such details could be a date, a place, or the context (a war, an election, a first novel, after the passage of 30 years).
  • Don’t use “It says” unless “it” has been identified and “it” identifies who is responsible for the quote. Even then, your writing is better if you remove the pronoun “it” and use the noun.
  • Don’t use “The quote is” unless you have already identified the quote in some way. Even then, use more specific language, usually naming the source of the quote, for a better transition.

How to write narrative essays

Narrative essays are short stories, real or imagined.  Like novels, they follow a pattern of beginning, middle, and end, or in academic terms, inciting event, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution.

But how do you begin?  This is the question I am asked more than any other by my students.  My answer is the same as for an expository or persuasive essay.  You begin with a written plan.

I have students write the word “beginning” near the top of the page, “middle” about a third of the way down, and “end” a bit up from the bottom (on notebook paper or on a blank page on the computer—it doesn’t matter).

Next to “beginning” I have students write “setting” and draw a sideways V like this:  <.  Extending from the top arm of the <, I ask students to write the place where the story takes place.  Next to the bottom arm of the <, I ask students to write the time of day/season or some other words to indicate when the story is taking place.  For example, these words could be “the first day of middle school,” or “when I broke five ribs.”  I ask students to start by identifying the setting because this is what readers look for when they start to read a narrative.  They want to know if they are reading about the French Revolution or life on Mars one thousand years into the future.  Knowing the setting orients readers.  It should be noted in the first paragraph or two of a narrative.

Continuing under “beginning,” I ask students to identify in a column the characters who will be in the story.  Sometimes this means names and sometimes this means positions or relationships such as “the doctor” or “the hit-and-run driver.”  Next to each character, name the character’s role such as protagonist, antagonist, foil, mentor, sage, trouble-maker or any roles that make sense.  Also list character traits and emotions to emphasize for each important character.

Readers want to identify and get in the head of the most important character, the focal character.  They want to emotionally feel what that character feels.  So decide who that character is.  Usually, it is the protagonist.

Identify the theme you want to show.  In other kinds of essays, the “theme” is called the main idea or the thesis.  In narratives you should be able to state the theme in a sentence such as “Doing something hard in public takes courage” or “Dogs can be exasperating.”  The theme is what you want to emphasize in your narrative.

In a column under “middle,” list the events or incidents that will happen in the story in the sequence in which they will happen.  Usually, this sequence is chronological order.  Any other kind of sequence such as jumping back and forth in time will make your narrative difficult to follow.  I find using bullets is a good way to list, especially if you are using a computer that allows you to cut and paste to reorder information.

You want the “middle” to be long enough so you can identify details to use—maybe 15 lines.  If the “middle” is too short, you haven’t thought your plot through enough.  If it is longer than 15 lines, you need to cut back.  A good finished narrative length is about three pages of text, double spaced, in 12-point type (1000 words).  Many teachers won’t read more unless your writing is exceptional.

Under “end,” write “climax.”  Identify what happens at the climax.  This is where the theme is most evident, where you do that thing in public that is so hard or where that exasperating dog forces you to take action.  At the climax, readers should feel strong emotion.  So should you as you write and reread your climax.

If you have introduced details left unexplained, do that quickly.  Then write your ending.  What is most important is that the ending is satisfying to the reader.  Satisfying is not the same as positive.  Not all endings are happy.  Even when the ending doesn’t turn out as the protagonist hopes, that character still comes away a different person, someone who has grown through the experience.  Make sure your protagonist shows growth and that growth is connected to your theme.