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Be a Better Writer--SENTENCE STRUCTURES (THE END)

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--SENTENCE STRUCTURES (THE END)

Postby glorybee » Sun Oct 13, 2013 10:38 pm

Here's the final lesson on sentence structures, in which I bit off FAR more than I could chew. Thanks to my friend Steve Fitschen for helping me out (and writing a good chunk of this lesson). Future lessons will have far less grammar and far more art, I hope.

Complex sentences

A complex sentence has one independent clause (simple sentence, complete thought) and one (or more) dependent clauses (groups of words that cannot stand alone, that is, incomplete thoughts).

Unfortunately, I have to introduce one more grammar term since there are two different groups of words that cannot stand alone: clauses and phrases. A clause is a group of words that contains a verb and its subject (even though the group cannot stand alone). A phrase is simply a group of words that does not have a verb with its subject.

So, this sentence is a simple sentence: Disney World is my favorite place to visit with my husband and granddaughter. That’s because “with my husband and granddaughter” is a prepositional phrase.

However, this sentence is a complex sentence: Disney World is my favorite place to visit when my husband and granddaughter come with me. That’s because “when my husband and granddaughter come with me” is a clause.

Once I’m sure I have one independent clause and one dependent clause, I can write either clause first:

When I’m visiting Disney World, I avoid the roller coasters.

I avoid the roller coasters when I’m visiting Disney World.

As you can see, sometimes a complex sentence has a comma, and sometimes it does not.

Compound-complex sentence

A compound complex sentence has two (or more) independent clauses (simple sentences, complete thoughts) and one (or more) dependent clauses (that is, incomplete thoughts that contain verbs with their subjects).

I love amusement parks, but I avoid the roller coasters when I’m visiting Disney World.

I love amusement parks, but I avoid the roller coasters when I’m visiting Disney World and when I’m visiting Six Flags.

Sentences with compound subjects

Any of the above types of sentences may have a compound subject—two (or more) people or things (nouns) that are the subjects of the sentence.

(simple sentence) Four-year-old boys and girls enjoy lots of activity.

(compound sentence) Preschoolers and their parents often need naps, and naps can revitalize grumpy family members.

(complex sentence) Children and their siblings tend to bicker when parents don’t stop them.

(compound-complex sentences) Piper and her cousin usually get along, but they fight over books and over who sits on grandma’s lap.

Sentences with compound verbs

Any of the above sentences may have a compound verb—two (or more) actions that are performed by the subject of the sentence.

(simple sentence) Jan enjoys solving crossword puzzles and playing the piano.

(compound sentence) Jan hoped and prayed to remember her recital piece; her prayers were answered.

(complex sentence) When it comes to crossword puzzles, I either solve them quickly or can’t complete them at all.

(compound-complex sentence) When it comes to crossword puzzles, I either solve them quickly or can’t complete them at all; but when it comes to Sudoku, I either solve them quickly or stick with them no matter how long it takes.

I’d like to encourage you to try the following exercise (and this will be your homework this week):

1. Pick a bit of your own writing that you really like—perhaps a challenge entry that did well. Some of you have already started this, with the previous lessons about sentences.
2. Make a tally of the kinds of sentences that you use. While you’re at it, also count sentence lengths.
3. Make a note—is there a type of sentence that you use more than others? Is there a type of sentence that you use hardly at all? Please take note that I’m not saying that it’s necessary for you to have an exactly equal distribution of sentence types. But you should use all of the types of sentences in your writing.
4. See if you use a variety of sentence lengths.
5. Finally, note if there are sentence structures that you tend to overuse. For example, I had one editing client who tended to write a lot of sentences like this:

As Jan walked into the house, she smelled apple pie in the oven.

As the wind picked up outside, leaves danced and swirled in the yard.


There’s nothing wrong with those sentences, but she used that As this happened, this also happened structure far too often.

I had another client who used this structure too much:

The puppy pounced on Bill’s toes, then it nipped his sock.

Tessa flopped on the bed in tears, then pounded her pillow in frustration.


Again, the sentences were grammatically correct, but she used that particular setup far too often. So note any similarities in the sentences you write, and work on finding different arrangements for some of them.

I did this exercise for my favorite challenge entry, Sacrament. There were 54 sentences in this entry. If I tallied them correctly, 17 were simple sentences, 12 were compound, and 19 were complex—a fairly even distribution. Only 1 sentence was compound-complex, and that’s something that I might want to examine in future writing. However, since this piece is written from the POV of a young boy, I intentionally kept the sentences on the simple side.

And that's the key: Match your sentence types and lengths to the sort of writing you're doing.

There were also 7 intentional sentence fragments. The sentence lengths ranged from 2 words to 28, again with a fairly even distribution (and an odd peak of 22-word sentences).

While I was counting sentence types, I noticed a type of sentence that I may have used too much--sentences like this:

Her grayish sheet is crumpled, her bed empty.

The sky is pale, the sun invisible behind the city's haze.

...his brothers have begun to cry, their stomachs empty as his.

...the neighbors will be angry, may even call the police.


I don't even know if there's a name for what I did there--ending each sentence with a phrase with some words omitted (but implied). Obviously, I like that particular device--it's kind of artsy, and it fits in well with my voice. But if I overuse it, readers might find it forced and annoying.

One of the things that makes your writing pleasant to read is flow. If all of your sentences are of similar types and lengths, your prose will fall into a sort of rhythm and may distract the reader, or cause her to put her reading on ‘autopilot.’ So within a typical paragraph, include both short and long sentences.

If you want to quicken the pace, put several short or simple sentences in a row.

If you want to stretch out the pace, put several longer, complex or compound sentences in succession.

Incidentally, all of this advice is true for paragraph lengths, too. Mix up long paragraphs with short paragraphs, chosen intentionally for pacing and for their impact on your readers.

HOMEWORK: Analyze a piece of writing to determine if you use a variety of sentence types and lengths, and also to see if there's a sentence structure that you overuse. What have you learned about your writing by this exercise? What will you work on? What did you do well?

Do you have any questions or comments for me?
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Be a Better Writer--SENTENCE STRUCTURES (THE END)

Postby lish1936 » Mon Oct 14, 2013 9:32 pm

Jan, I read, "Sacrament." It's a great piece with a title, that coupled with the last line, blows one away. However, when I began reading, I admit to thinking how much descriptive "tell" dominated the first three paragraphs. I was also surprised at the number of phrases that ended with a period, as if they were sentences.

Are they not phrases parading as sentences? And is this an accepted writing style? I'm sure there's a great explanation for it. :D

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Re: Be a Better Writer--SENTENCE STRUCTURES (THE END)

Postby glorybee » Mon Oct 14, 2013 10:03 pm

lish1936 wrote:Jan, I read, "Sacrament." It's a great piece with a title, that coupled with the last line, blows one away. However, when I began reading, I admit to thinking how much descriptive "tell" dominated the first three paragraphs. I was also surprised at the number of phrases that ended with a period, as if they were sentences.

Are they not phrases parading as sentences? And is this an accepted writing style? I'm sure there's a great explanation for it. :D

Lillian


Wonderful questions, Lillian! And if I sound defensive in answering them, please be assured that I'm not at all. I realize that the piece has its flaws, and in fact, it didn't even break the top 40 that week (the usual number back in those days). So apparently the judges didn't love it, either, even though it's my favorite thing I've ever written.

I'll start with your easier question--the second one. I assume you're talking about this passage:

A gnawing emptiness draws Billy to the kitchen. Sam and Nicky are both awake now, whimpering and rubbing their eyes. Pulling a chair over to the counter, Billy stretches toward the cupboard and peers inside.

An opened bag of flour. A bottle of vegetable oil. Canned beets. One waxy square juice box. Spaghetti noodles. Green Jell-o in an envelope. A nearly empty jar of peanut butter.


I used sentence fragments intentionally in that second paragraph, to mimic the fact that Billy was taking inventory of the contents of the cupboard. The phrases aren't his thoughts, precisely, but the clipped pacing of the list of items was meant to suggest his eyes roaming over and naming each item. It would have been far less effective if I'd written, for example:

He sees that there is a bag of flour, only half full. Also in the cupboard are canned beets, a box of spaghetti, and some vegetable oil. Billy spies an envelope of green Jell-o and a jar of peanut butter, nearly empty.

That paragraph might have better 'flow,' but I needed the opposite of flow in that spot.

Now, about those first three paragraphs. Here they are:

The window near Billy’s mattress is cracked, and the breeze that whistles through the glass raises goose bumps on his thin arms. He sits up, awake and listening. Next to him, Sam is still asleep, making sucking noises as if he has not yet completely thrown off babyhood. Little Nicky snuffles from his spot on their shared bed. Billy wrinkles his nose; Sam has soiled the mattress again and Nicky is wearing yesterday’s diaper.

Billy glances toward his mother’s bed, unsure if the silence from her corner is because she is unconscious or simply gone. Her grayish sheet is crumpled, her bed empty. Billy lets out his breath and walks barefooted to the window.

A car cruises by, speakers booming. In the distance, a siren screams. The sky is pale, the sun invisible behind the city’s haze. Two big boys walk past Billy’s building wearing identical orange sneakers. One of them tosses a basketball from hand to hand. Billy watches as the boys turn the corner.


First of all, the mantra of "show, don't tell" is, in my opinion, over-used and not particularly helpful. There is much to be said for sparse and elegant prose. However--I don't believe that these paragraphs are "telling." I did think it was important to set the scene for the reader; a "telling" way to do this would be something like:

Billy lives in a run-down apartment in an inner city. His two younger brothers live with him, and they are often neglected by their mother, who uses drugs. The apartment is smelly and filthy. When Billy looks over toward his mother's bed, he sees that she is gone, and her bed is messy. He is upset and a little bit scared, and he doesn't know what to do. His little brothers will probably wake up soon.

That's "telling"--but what I tried to do in those opening paragraphs was to "show" the reader those things about Billy's life by using sensory details: the smell of urine, Billy's goose bumps, the sounds of the siren, the graying sheets. I also introduced the conflict (the neglect of the three boys) in those paragraphs, and established Billy as the POV character. Details like Billy being unsure if his mother is unconscious show the reader about their history (she has been unconscious in front of Billy before, probably regularly). When Billy watches the two boys with the basketball, the reader can infer that he wishes he were able to play with them.

So those three paragraphs aren't just a description of Billy's living conditions, but they clue the reader in to the facts of his life and set the stage for the story to follow.

I hope I was able to explain my choices to you--please let me know if there's anything else I can clarify. I love revisiting this story--I'll never write another one like it.
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Be a Better Writer--SENTENCE STRUCTURES (THE END)

Postby lish1936 » Tue Oct 15, 2013 12:14 pm

I think I get it, Jan, but I'm still pondering a few more questions. Could you also achieve a similar
intent while adhering to the definition of a phrase?

"Billy stretches toward the cupboard and peers inside. His eyes move slowly from an opened bag of flour, a bottle of vegetable oil, canned beets, one waxy square juice box, Spaghetti noodles, green Jell-o in an envelope, and finally a nearly empty jar of peanut butter."

I love the sparse picture of the cupboard that is further emphasized by your use of crisp, independent phrases (which by definition may be an oxymoron), but I'm wondering if this technique would render a story circular file material by editors who "stick to the rules?"

Last question: Now that you've explained the first three paragraphs, I'm wondering how long should one take to "set the stage" in a 750 word story. I ask the question, because I've read a few Challenge articles that I thought (and now perhaps wrongly so) were top heavy with details.

And no, you were not defensive at all. In fact, I like it that YOUR favorite piece had nothing to do with what the Judges thought. I've had a few of those myself. :D



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I love to write. Nothing escapes the crush I have on the written word. I'm hooked on words!!

"Let words bewitch you. Scrutinze them, mull them, savor them, and in combination, until you see their subtle differences and the ways they tint each other." Francis Flaherty

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Re: Be a Better Writer--SENTENCE STRUCTURES (THE END)

Postby glorybee » Tue Oct 15, 2013 1:08 pm

lish1936 wrote:I think I get it, Jan, but I'm still pondering a few more questions. Could you also achieve a similar
intent while adhering to the definition of a phrase?

"Billy stretches toward the cupboard and peers inside. His eyes move slowly from an opened bag of flour, a bottle of vegetable oil, canned beets, one waxy square juice box, Spaghetti noodles, green Jell-o in an envelope, and finally a nearly empty jar of peanut butter."

I love the sparse picture of the cupboard that is further emphasized by your use of crisp, independent phrases (which by definition may be an oxymoron), but I'm wondering if this technique would render a story circular file material by editors who "stick to the rules?"


Oh, the light dawneth! You're concerned about the rules--the fact that we were all taught in school that we mustn't write sentence fragments.

The best writers disregard rules regularly and with enthusiasm. The key is to have mastered them, and to understand when, for example, writing a sentence fragment or a comma splice or a split infinitive is art and when it is wrong.

In the case of my intentional sentence fragments, I could indeed have written them as a list, with commas. But as you said, that would not have been as crisp, and would not have captured the feeling that I was going for.

Publishers will not reject a work because of not adhering to grammar rules if it is done well.

lish1936 wrote:Last question: Now that you've explained the first three paragraphs, I'm wondering how long should one take to "set the stage" in a 750 word story. I ask the question, because I've read a few Challenge articles that I thought (and now perhaps wrongly so) were top heavy with details.
Lillian


Well, you're asking for a formula where there is none. It would be easy for me to say, "The exposition of a 750-word story should be no more than 200 words," but that is taking away from the art of writing. "Sacrament" had three paragraphs of exposition--another story might skip the exposition altogether and start right away with the climax. Another might need two or three sentences. There are so many variables: setting, characters, genre, mood, the writers' voice--and the reader's perception. Those stories that you thought top heavy may well have been, if your interest waned.

I can't tell you how much I'm enjoying this exchange--you're really making me think!
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Be a Better Writer--SENTENCE STRUCTURES (THE END)

Postby lish1936 » Tue Oct 15, 2013 5:07 pm

No, your're making me REthink, in addition to learning more about what I love to do. :D

And I probably should have written "picture of a sparse cupboard. :?: :?:

Lillian
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I love to write. Nothing escapes the crush I have on the written word. I'm hooked on words!!

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Re: Be a Better Writer--SENTENCE STRUCTURES (THE END)

Postby swfdoc1 » Tue Oct 15, 2013 6:02 pm

glorybee wrote:While I was counting sentence types, I noticed a type of sentence that I may have used too much--sentences like this:

Her grayish sheet is crumpled, her bed empty.

The sky is pale, the sun invisible behind the city's haze.

...his brothers have begun to cry, their stomachs empty as his.

...the neighbors will be angry, may even call the police.


I don't even know if there's a name for what I did there--ending each sentence with a phrase with some words omitted (but implied). Obviously, I like that particular device--it's kind of artsy, and it fits in well with my voice. But if I overuse it, readers might find it forced and annoying.


Out of curiosity, did you include these in your sentence counts, or are these sentences (and perhaps others like them) uncounted? If you did count them, which category did you put them in?

If I'm not mistaken, these are all ellipses (that is a construction in which words are left out because they are implied). (And, yes, "ellipses" is the same word as the three dots, but here with a different meaning.) There are various types of ellipses, and I think you have various types--I haven't thought about it particularly carefully.

This raises an interesting question: how do you punctuate these ellipses? When you look at various sources dealing with ellipses, you see examples using commas and examples using semi-colons. And I am not aware of any rule that governs. To my eye, the first two "feel" better with a semi-colon. Otherwise, the sentences "feel" like they contain a comma splice. The third one "feels" better with a comma because it feels like an "absolute phrase," that is, a phrase that modifies the entire rest of the sentence. It ISN'T an absolute phrase, but it feels like it functions sort of that way. I keep going back and forth on the fourth one

What are your reactions to these punctuation thoughts as the original writer or as an editor?
Steve
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Re: Be a Better Writer--SENTENCE STRUCTURES (THE END)

Postby glorybee » Tue Oct 15, 2013 6:13 pm

swfdoc1 wrote:
glorybee wrote:While I was counting sentence types, I noticed a type of sentence that I may have used too much--sentences like this:

Her grayish sheet is crumpled, her bed empty.

The sky is pale, the sun invisible behind the city's haze.

...his brothers have begun to cry, their stomachs empty as his.

...the neighbors will be angry, may even call the police.


I don't even know if there's a name for what I did there--ending each sentence with a phrase with some words omitted (but implied). Obviously, I like that particular device--it's kind of artsy, and it fits in well with my voice. But if I overuse it, readers might find it forced and annoying.


Out of curiosity, did you include these in your sentence counts, or are these sentences (and perhaps others like them) uncounted? If you did count them, which category did you put them in?

If I'm not mistaken, these are all ellipses (that is a construction in which words are left out because they are implied). (And, yes, "ellipses" is the same word as the three dots, but here with a different meaning.) There are various types of ellipses, and I think you have various types--I haven't thought about it particularly carefully.

This raises an interesting question: how do you punctuate these ellipses? When you look at various sources dealing with ellipses, you see examples using commas and examples using semi-colons. And I am not aware of any rule that governs. To my eye, the first two "feel" better with a semi-colon. Otherwise, the sentences "feel" like they contain a comma splice. The third one "feels" better with a comma because it feels like an "absolute phrase," that is, a phrase that modifies the entire rest of the sentence. It ISN'T an absolute phrase, but it feels like it functions sort of that way. I keep going back and forth on the fourth one

What are your reactions to these punctuation thoughts as the original writer or as an editor?


Steve, I did count them, although I went back and forth on some of them. Compound? Complex? Compound-complex? Truthfully, I just gave them my best guess. I think I tried to identify subjects and verbs, and then implied subjects and verbs, and maybe counted them as I would have if the implied words were actually there. But I bet if I counted the sentences again, I'd come up with a different number for each category. I'm TERRIBLE at this.

As to your last question: I've re-visited this story several times, even once or twice to enter it into a few short story writing contests (where it tanked just as decisively as it did here.). I looked at it with an editor's eye, and I don't think I changed a jot or a tittle. Well, maybe one tittle. It's not that this piece is perfect--it most certainly is not--but I like it just the way it is.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--SENTENCE STRUCTURES (THE END)

Postby swfdoc1 » Tue Oct 15, 2013 6:51 pm

glorybee wrote:I looked at it with an editor's eye, and I don't think I changed a jot or a tittle. Well, maybe one tittle. It's not that this piece is perfect--it most certainly is not--but I like it just the way it is.


Very interesting. As I said, I'm not aware of any rule, and you certainly see plenty of these elliptical constructions with commas instead of semi-colons. The more I look at your first one, the more I could go either way; but the more I look at the second one, the more the comma bothers me. However, this reminds me of something I learned long ago: when you get changes back from an editor, you have to decide which ones are worth fighting over and which ones you should submit to without objection. If I had written your second sentence with a semi-colon; and if you, as my editor, had changed it to a comma, I hope I would have had the good sense to NOT fight over that change.

Your expression "jot and tittle" reminds me of an egregious error I once saw in an academic article. For reasons that are not worth explaining, I think it highly likely that it was the error was edited in but wasn't caught by the author. The article spoke of not one "job or title" being changed.
Steve
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Re: Be a Better Writer--SENTENCE STRUCTURES (THE END)

Postby glorybee » Tue Oct 15, 2013 6:57 pm

swfdoc1 wrote:
Your expression "jot and tittle" reminds me of an egregious error I once saw in an academic article. For reasons that are not worth explaining, I think it highly likely that it was the error was edited in but wasn't caught by the author. The article spoke of not one "job or title" being changed.


Oh, that makes me smile. Maybe the writer was making a pun?

(I'll admit that I looked it up before using it. I've heard the phrase many, many times, but I wanted to be sure I got it right. I did.)
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Be a Better Writer--SENTENCE STRUCTURES (THE END)

Postby swfdoc1 » Tue Oct 15, 2013 7:26 pm

You did get it right! The author and/or editor are not so lucky. The article was an academic critique of the changes to Black’s Law Dictionary under the editorship of Bryan Garner. (You may be familiar with him from Garner’s Modern American Usage, the grammar/usage/style guide.) The sentence said, “Even more astonishing is that definitions of missilia, missing ship, and mistery [not a typo] survived into the 1990s without a job or title being changed.”
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--SENTENCE STRUCTURES (THE END)

Postby Mike Newman » Tue Oct 15, 2013 10:45 pm

Jan,

I really enjoyed reading your story. I liked the splashes of color: the orange sneakers, the gray sheet, the golden pool in the mound of white, the purple box (my favorite).

My two favorite lines:

Two big boys walk past Billy’s building wearing identical orange sneakers.

A hot, wheaty odor fills the apartment.

I don't know if you're like me but I often scribble out a few sentences in each story that just knock my socks off, and I often wonder if the reader would pick out the same ones.

Did you like these two sentences? If they didn't stand out to you, which were your babies?

I did enjoy the story, you told it well.

Mike

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Re: Be a Better Writer--SENTENCE STRUCTURES (THE END)

Postby glorybee » Tue Oct 15, 2013 10:56 pm

Mike, thank you.

The last sentence was THE sentence for me--the one that I hoped would shed sudden light for the reader as to the meaning of the title, which up until that sentence may have been a mystery.

Other than that (but related), I have to say that I was fond of this sentence fragment:

One waxy square juice box.

This is why--that juice box wasn't in the cupboard when I first inventoried its contents. At that point, the story didn't have its title, and I didn't even really know how it would end. I had a picture in my mind of this precious little boy, old before his time, serving his brothers selflessly although he'd certainly never been taught selflessness by his mother.

But then, as I neared the end, and I realized that Billy had become a minister and that he was serving communion, I went back to that paragraph and put the juice box in the cupboard. It gave me chills.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--SENTENCE STRUCTURES (THE END)

Postby LookingUp » Wed Oct 16, 2013 1:16 am

I loved this assignment. My sentence structure was already fairly balanced since I was conscious of that as I wrote, but I hadn't paid much attention to the length of paragraphs as pertaining to the pace of the action. I can see that this will be a helpful tool for determining whether to add to or subtract from a scene.

I also enjoyed reading the other conversations here. They alert my brain to thinking about things I might never have considered otherwise.

Thanks, Jan, and thanks everybody else!


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