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Be a Better Writer--COMPOUND SENTENCES

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer--COMPOUND SENTENCES

Postby glorybee » Mon Sep 30, 2013 9:27 pm

In last week’s lesson,, I extolled the virtues of the short, simple sentence. I encouraged participants to think analytically about the types of sentences they’re using, and to use them intentionally, for maximum impact.

Despite everything I said last week about wonderful, Hemingway-esque short sentences, one of the most frequent changes I make when I’m editing is combining two short sentences into a longer one. If you use too many short sentences in a row, your writing can tend to be choppy, and longer sentences can contribute to a piece’s flow.

When you combine two shorter sentences (or independent clauses), you make a compound sentence. There are a few ways to do this:

1. Use a conjunction (a word like and, but, so…or longer words like however and therefore). You can find a list of conjunctions here.

Here are some sample sentences:

Chocolate is delicious, but much of it is harvested by slave labor.

I do not want to support exploitation of children so I only buy fair trade chocolate.

Since Divine Chocolate supports ethical cacao growers, it is the only brand I will buy.


A few things to notice: the conjunction can come either in the front or the middle. Each of the independent clauses in red could stand on their own as a complete, simple sentence. When they are combined, the reader is better able to see the relationship between the two clauses.

2. Use a semicolon, a dash, or a colon. Each has a specific use, although there’s some wiggle room; one writer may choose to use a dash while another would put a semicolon in the same place, and both would be perfectly fine.

Use a semicolon to combine two related sentences when you don’t want to use a period and you have not used a little conjunction.

Most people are unaware of the issue of chocolate slavery; their chocolate purchases support cruel business practices.

A period would have been perfectly fine after the word slavery, or I could have used a comma and the word and. This sentence, with the semicolon, emphasizes the relationship between consumer unawareness and chocolate slavery.

You can also use a semicolon when the second independent clause begins with one of the longer conjunctions.

I have loved chocolate all my life; however, my conscience will not allow me to eat chocolate these days.

Use a dash when there is a sudden change of direction between the two independent clauses, but you still want to keep them together.

I was enjoying a delicious chocolate brownie—the image of a suffering child suddenly turned it into a mouthful of mud.

Here, if I’d chosen to use a comma and the word but, the shift of the sentence wouldn’t be quite so abrupt. I used the dash to signal to the reader: time to think differently.

Use a colon when the first of your two independent clauses signals what’s going to be in the second independent clause.

Many people are unaware of the extent of modern slavery: cacao, coffee, and sugar are often harvested using slave labor.

***
This lesson has been pretty heavy on grammar and light on the art of writing. I guess I’d like to suggest again that you choose your sentence lengths with intention, and that you even think about what sort of punctuation best works in your sentence when there are two or three “correct” choices (semicolon, dash, period…). If you’re a nonfiction writer, which one fits best with your voice? If you’re writing fiction, which best fits your narrator’s voice?

Here are some sentences from Doug Worgul’s book Thin Blue Smoke that show how compound sentences can look in the hands of a skilled writer:

The Rev. Dr. Newton was a dedicated fan and learned scholar of baseball, and it was hard to deny that his son-in-law was a talented ballplayer.

Smoke Meat is a small place, but it’s not what you would call cozy.

Though he won’t admit it to his boss, A. B. has slowly, quietly, and grudgingly accepted that the eccentricity of Smoke Meat’s menu does give the place a distinct character.


You’ll notice that none of these examples use semicolons, dashes, or colons. Those constructions aren’t really part of Worgul’s voice—I know this because not only have I read this book several times, but I was its first critic. The author is my brother, and (shameless plug here), you can order it here. Trust me—you won’t be sorry.

The other reason I used my brother’s book is to contrast it with my own style. Unlike Doug, I love to use semicolons and dashes. Also unlike Doug, I’m not a published writer, but I went back to some of my old challenge entries and found these compound sentences:

So I’m looking for felt, raffia, burlap, pine cones—I’m going for that homey, cozy look.

My eyes are drawn to a heap of discarded clothing piled against a dumpster: I can make out an old leather jacket, desert camo trousers, tattered work boots, and a brown knitted watch cap.

Early in the morning, we rattled into Savannah station; Beau’s mother sent a car to meet us there.


So…I guess what I’m saying is that you need to start working on having a specific voice—something that makes your writing identifiably yours. You may, like Hemingway, choose short and simple sentences. Or like my brother, you may stick with the first punctuation marks we learn in school. Or like me, you may go for artsy, contrived sentences.

Sentence structure isn’t the only thing that defines your voice. It’s also word choice, and mood, and subject matter, and a host of other things. But I hope this lesson and the ones to follow will get you to think about what you want your voice to be, and to write more intentionally, choosing each word, each phrase, each punctuation mark for the effect it will have on your reader.

HOMEWORK: Next week we’ll look at complex sentences. In the meantime, take that piece of writing you looked at last week, and count up your compound sentences. Hopefully, as you’re counting, you’ll also be taking note of the kinds of sentences you seem to prefer. We’ll be talking about that in a week or two. In the meantime:

1. Write a few different kinds of compound sentences, of the types demonstrated here.

2. Make a comment or ask a question, or tell me where I messed up.
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Be a Better Writer--COMPOUND SENTENCES

Postby JayDavidKing » Tue Oct 01, 2013 1:59 am

glorybee wrote:So…I guess what I’m saying is that you need to start working on having a specific voice—something that makes your writing identifiably yours.


Jan, this lesson is scary! If we succeed in being good enough writers to have an "identifiable" voice then the challenge judges will know by our excellent writing voice who wrote the piece! :shock: I guess for the challenge we will just have to write with multiple personalities.

So, how about this for a compound sentence with multiple personality:

The cookie was within reach-- leave the cookie alone; so close I could smell it-- take it, take it; what's a few extra pounds?, so I took it.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--COMPOUND SENTENCES

Postby glorybee » Tue Oct 01, 2013 9:13 am

JayDavidKing wrote:Jan, this lesson is scary! If we succeed in being good enough writers to have an "identifiable" voice then the challenge judges will know by our excellent writing voice who wrote the piece! :shock: I guess for the challenge we will just have to write with multiple personalities.

So, how about this for a compound sentence with multiple personality:

The cookie was within reach-- leave the cookie alone; so close I could smell it-- take it, take it; what's a few extra pounds?, so I took it.


Jay, I was thinking beyond the writing challenge when I wrote that--thinking of published writers who have distinct voices that can be described by their reviewers and appreciated by their readers.

Having been a writing challenge judge for many years, I can promise you that because of the number of entries we have to read, we rarely speculate on who wrote a particular entry. And even when an entry made me think Oh, I bet so-and-so wrote this, there were protections against 'judge bias' for the writers. There are 9 very specific judging criteria, and judges have to give ratings for each of them, making it more likely that a piece will be judged on its merits. They are professional editors who know what they're looking for. Also--the judges are really, really scrupulous about being objective. It's never possible to judge writing in an entirely subjective manner, but I know that when I thought I knew the writer of a piece (especially when I thought it might be one of my friends)--I took even more time to judge it objectively. Finally, the challenge is judged by more than one judge. Even if I recognized a style as "probably Jay," for example, the chance that the other judges would also recognize it is low. We try very, very hard to keep everything aboveboard!

I know you were mostly joking--but I wanted to be sure it's clear to everyone that the judging process is as fair as it can be.

More importantly--the writing challenge is designed to improve writers and to prepare them, to some extent, for leaving the writing challenge. It's discouraging for the judges on weeks when they read 80 entries for which there are very few standouts. Having a voice is so appreciated, and when I said 'identifiable,' I didn't necessarily mean 'identifiable as belonging to a specific person,' but more like 'identifiable as being a unique and interesting voice that stands out from the pack.'

As for your cookie sentence--it's amusing and refreshing to read! I probably would have chosen to punctuate it differently, but that's (to some extent) a matter of personal preference. Maybe something like this:

The cookie was within reach (leave the cookie alone) so close I could smell it (take it, take it-- what's a few extra pounds?), so I took it.

I think that putting the thoughts in italics and within parenthesis gives a clearer distinction to the reader--more like that proverbial little imp whispering in the speaker's ear. It's also less cluttered. What do you think?
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Re: Be a Better Writer--COMPOUND SENTENCES

Postby JayDavidKing » Tue Oct 01, 2013 12:22 pm

I agree 100% with all that you said... even the cookie sentence rewrite. And, yes, I WAS only joking about the judges. I have no doubts whatsoever about the integrity of the challenge system.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--COMPOUND SENTENCES

Postby swfdoc1 » Tue Oct 01, 2013 1:13 pm

Hey Jan,

Another great lesson.

Here's a quick item for homework #2. (But I'd rather say "slipped past" than "messed up.")

This sentence:

Since Divine Chocolate supports ethical cacao growers, it is the only brand I will buy.

is a complex sentence, not a compound sentence. The conjunction "since" turns the clause it introduces into a DEPENDENT clause. So, as I think you are going to explain next week, a dependent clause + an independent clause = complex sentence. (Notice that on the conjunction web page you linked to, “since” is listed under “subordinating conjunctions,” which simply means conjunctions that connect independent and dependent clauses (or really, that turn independent clauses into dependent clauses).

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Re: Be a Better Writer--COMPOUND SENTENCES

Postby glorybee » Tue Oct 01, 2013 1:21 pm

Thanks for the correction, Steve. We're turning into quite the tag team.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--COMPOUND SENTENCES

Postby choosingjoy » Tue Oct 01, 2013 2:11 pm

Okay, this is all great. I see something I stumbled over last week cleared up (I think). Counting simple sentences, I found this one and didn't know. It didn't seem right:

Since our Mama died, she was the center of our world. The since makes it complex, right?

And you two make a good tag team. Thanks again.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--COMPOUND SENTENCES

Postby yarra » Wed Oct 02, 2013 9:03 am

Thanks Jan for this compound sentence lesson. It's an area in which I struggle. Before I submit some attempts at the various types of compound sentences may I query this one that you wrote:

Early in the morning, we rattled into Savannah station; Beau’s mother sent a car to meet us there.

I know it is a compound sentence and that it makes sense but why would you not make that into 2 simple, short sentences like this:

Early in the morning, we rattled into Savannah station. Beau’s mother sent a car to meet us there.

In my opinion the semi-colon link between the 2 parts does not enhance the story line at all but kind of complicates it by almost running the sentences together. I guess it's personal preference. Would you mind commenting as to why you think the compound sentence version is better, please?

Here are my attempts at some compound sentences (continuing the chocolate theme - I like chocolate, and also like to buy fair-trade choccy when I can find it):

Fair-trade chocolate is often hard to find as very few stores stock it.

I had to compromise my ethics in choosing some chocolate; there was no fair-trade chocolate to be found.

Melanie was horrified to learn that much of the chocolate she ate was sourced unethically - slave labor was used to pick the cocoa beans from which it was made.

I'll try the other part of the homework tomorrow as it's late at night now here.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--COMPOUND SENTENCES

Postby glorybee » Wed Oct 02, 2013 10:31 am

Ellen, thanks for asking about that sentence.

I did some thinking about the sentence, and my writing voice, and I came up with a few reasons for that semicolon:

1. There was no narrative reason at that point in this story for having two short, simple sentences in a row. There was a logical connection between the two sentences and I wanted the reader to feel that the train ride and the car were a seamless part of the journey (which would have plenty of 'bumps' later in the story).

2. I just really like semicolons; they're my default punctuation. :) However, on re-reading the story, I think I used this particular construction too much.

3. I tend to use a semicolon when I want the reader's inner voice to pause for a fraction of a second, but to hang on to what she just read. With a period, there's a more complete stop-and-move-on. It's subtle, and a period would have been fine there, or a comma with 'and.'
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Re: Be a Better Writer--COMPOUND SENTENCES

Postby cgalmond » Fri Oct 04, 2013 4:31 am

Jan i have to admit that this lesson scares me!

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Re: Be a Better Writer--COMPOUND SENTENCES

Postby Mike Newman » Fri Oct 04, 2013 9:04 pm

Looking at the same entry again, I only found five or six sentences that I labeled as compound. I'm not sure what the heck I would call most of my sentences. :D

I think I need a good review of comma usage. I know I am guilty of splicing them often, and I like using them so should probably ensure I am doing so at least somewhat correctly.

Thanks for this lesson Jan,

Mike

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Re: Be a Better Writer--COMPOUND SENTENCES

Postby glorybee » Fri Oct 04, 2013 9:28 pm

Mike, I could talk about commas for weeks, but I was hoping not to get too much into the mechanics of writing. I'm already regretting this series on sentence structures, because it gets away from the art of writing, which is what I wanted to focus on.

When my homework asks for participants to write something, I'll correct their comma usage with each critique. But as soon as I get away from these blasted sentences, I hope to find some topics that will appeal more to our right brains.

Of course, you can always ask me a specific question about comma usage in a particular situation, and I'll be glad to respond.
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Be a Better Writer--COMPOUND SENTENCES

Postby swfdoc1 » Fri Oct 04, 2013 10:50 pm

But there is a real connection between the art of writing and what you are teaching (once we come up for air). One easy example: many people write sentences that are hard to follow or wear their readers out. Once we understand the types of sentences you are teaching, we can better figure out how and when to split them. Conversely, when we understand how these sentences work, we can sometimes write VERY long sentences that AREN’T hard to follow and DON’T wear their readers out.

In the meantime and to illustrate the ART of varying sentence length, I’m posting a link to the opening of volume one of William Manchester’s The Last Lion. Manchester is a master of long AND short sentences AND of varying them with great effect.

Once you click on the link, page down until the text starts. Read until the lion symbol that ends the first section (a manageable amount of text). If you bog down in the third paragraph, just persevere—it will be worth it. Here’s the link: The Last Lion
Steve
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things are gone." C.S. Lewis
“The chief purpose of life … is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis ... We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendor.” J.R.R. Tolkien

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Re: Be a Better Writer--COMPOUND SENTENCES

Postby tomoral » Sat Oct 05, 2013 2:04 pm

This is all very interesting and constructive, but after reading all of the comments I have to say I am confused about the proper usage of commas, dashes, and semicolons.

I am also a slow learner. When I came in here a year ago, I didn't know a comma from a semicolon. So I have learned a lot since. I will just grit my teeth and try to keep up! :lol:
God Bless the beasts and the children
Give them shelter from the storms.
Children are our tomorrow
Keep them daily from the sorrow
Of the beasts in life

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Re: Be a Better Writer--COMPOUND SENTENCES

Postby glorybee » Sat Oct 05, 2013 2:14 pm

tomoral wrote:This is all very interesting and constructive, but after reading all of the comments I have to say I am confused about the proper usage of commas, dashes, and semicolons.



Is there something I can try to clarify for you?
Jan Ackerson

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