What is writing made of?

In her book The Writing Life (1989), Annie Dillard tells the story of a fellow writer who was asked by a student, “Do you think I could be a writer?” ” ‘Well,’ the writer said, ‘do you like sentences?'”

Excerpted from How To Write A Sentence by Stanley Fish. Copyright 2011 by Stanley Fish. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Writing is made of sentences (and sentences are made of clauses).

How many sentence fragments do professional writers use?

Excerpt from “A Fresh Look at Sentence Fragments” by Edgar H. Schuster”:

Sentence fragments have long been a form that most teachers try to eradicate from student writing. However well intentioned this may be, does it help students become better writers of nonfiction? Partly to answer this question, I examined the fifty essays reprinted in The Best American Essays 2001 (Norris and Atwan) and The Best American Essays, 2003 (Fadiman and Atwan).

It was exciting to observe the range of the syntactic resources these writers called on and used effectively. They include some things we English teachers commonly teach against, such as comma splices, single-sentence paragraphs, even occasional rambling sentences. But what struck me far more forcefully was the extent to which these essayists used sentence fragments. At the outset, it should be said that the backbone of virtually every essay in these collections is the complete, well-formed English sentence. Nevertheless, I found 505 sentence fragments in the fifty essays.

Schuster, Edgar H. “A Fresh Look at Sentence Fragments.” The English Journal 95.5 (2006). Print. (78-83).

A simple text reconstruction exercise

INSTRUCTIONS: Number the sentences in the order you believe they appear in the original paragraph. Then copy the paragraph on a sheet of paper.

Important: Don’t copy word for word! Try to remember 5 to 10 words (and punctuation marks) at a time.

_____ A crane would take away your courage and your skill—three cranes would leave you with as much fight as a lettuce leaf.
_____ There were signs that told a warrior to fight, or to pack up and go home.
_____ They believed that there were good days for fighting and bad days.
_____ The Celts were fearless fighters yet they could easily be put off a fight.
_____ If he saw a crane bird, for example, he knew that would bring him bad luck.

Adapted from:
Deary, Terry. The Cut-Throat Celts. Illus. Martin Brown. London: Scholastic Children’s Books, 1997. (Print.) (5).

The author’s paragraph here.

Using the “so-what game” to write your conclusion

Good advice from University of North Carolina’s Writing Center:

Introductions and conclusions can be the most difficult parts of papers to write. While the body is often easier to write, it needs a frame around it. An introduction and conclusion frame your thoughts and bridge your ideas for the reader.


Play the “So What” Game. If you’re stuck and feel like your conclusion isn’t saying anything new or interesting, ask a friend to read it with you. Whenever you make a statement from your conclusion, ask the friend to say, “So what?” or “Why should anybody care?” Then ponder that question and answer it.

Here’s how it might go:

You: Basically, I’m just saying that education was important to Douglass.

Friend: So what?

You: Well, it was important because it was a key to him feeling like a free and equal citizen.

Friend: Why should anybody care?

You: That’s important because plantation owners tried to keep slaves from being
educated so that they could maintain control. When Douglass obtained an education, he undermined that control personally.

You can also use this strategy on your own, asking yourself “So What?” as you develop your ideas or your draft.

You don’t need a friend to play the So-what game, and you probably shouldn’t wait ’til the end of your essay to play it!

Conceding a point, part 2

Excerpt from a New Yorker post on the possibility that President Obama is “too cool” for ordinary Americans:

“Obama is cool,” Ron Lloyd, a commenter from Walla Walla, Washington, wrote at Politico. “The Sinatra of politics.”


Notwithstanding [Mr. Lloyd’s positive review], it remains to be seen how Obama’s latest media appearances will go down in places like [Walla Walla]. For all his smarts, he needs to be a bit careful. Americans like having a funny, articulate, and modern President. But they don’t want somebody who is too cool for school.

April 30, 2012
Posted by John Cassidy

Writer’s argument: “Middle Americans” are likely to be put off by President Obama’s “cool.”
Point conceded: Some Americans from out-of-the-way places like President Obama’s cool.

Writer John Cassidy uses the word notwithstanding to concede, or acknowledge, the fact that his argument is not true of all Americans.

Concession words
What is a concession relation?

The reader over your shoulder

“Cohesive connectors” at Chalk ‘n Talk – video

A terrific, short video on cohesion in paragraphs that we watched in class Wednesday.

Here are two versions of the same paragraph, one with explicit transitions and one with what the instructor calls “cohesive connectors”:

One reason that northern Canada is sparsely populated is because of its bitterly cold climate. For example, in the summer, northern parts of the country can receive snowfalls, and in the winter it can be as cold as -60C. Another reason for not living in the area is that the daylight hours in the winter are severely limited.

One reason that northern Canada is sparsely populated is because of its bitterly cold climate. Weather extremes range from the odd summer snowstorm to -60C temperatures during the long winter nights. Daylight, or the lack of it, is another reason people don’t live there.

Chalk ‘n Talk

Two comments. The Chalk ‘n Talk instructor seems to regard the first paragraph as an example of something not to do. I disagree. There is nothing wrong with the first paragraph; it is crystal clear, and it hangs together. It is cohesive.

Just about everyone in class seemed to like the second paragraph better, and I probably do, too. But you should never hesitate to use explicit transitions like “for example” and “another reason” in your writing. Such expressions are tremendously useful and not to be scorned. They keep your reader on track.

One more observation. Here, again, are Martha Kolln‘s  three methods of achieving paragraph cohesion:

  1. The subject of all or most sentences in the paragraph is the same.
  2. In each two-sentence pair, information included in the predicate of the 1st sentence becomes the subject of the 2nd sentence. Usually this means that something in the end of Sentence 1 becomes the beginning of Sentence 2.
  3. In paragraphs of description, a list of details follows the topic sentence.

The second paragraph above uses a variant of number 2.

The words “bitterly cold climate” at the end of Sentence 1 become the closely related concept “weather extremes” in the subject of Sentence 2.  Then “nights,” at the end of Sentence 2, becomes the closely related concept “daylight” in the subject of sentence 3. The links are logical and easy to follow.

Sentence Cohesion  excerpt from Rhetorical Grammar
Kolln, Martha J. Rhetorical Grammar:
..Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects
Coherent paragraphs & the bride on her wedding day

N.V.’s perfect paragraph

When the Grimms revised their tales, they made the stories less controversial but more violent. To achieve this goal, they took out realistic violence and left in the violence that parents thought was acceptable. For example, they removed “The Starving Children,” a story in which a mother is willing to eat her own child due to hunger. Also, in “Cinderella,” the birds poke out her stepsisters’ eyes.

This is a wonderful paragraph – wonderful and also pretty rare in the work of novice writers, I think. A paragraph to aspire to!

Here’s a break-down:

  1. TOPIC SENTENCEWhen the Grimms revised their tales, they made the stories less controversial but more violent.
  2. ELABORATION and/or EXPLANATION of the topicTo achieve this goal, they took out realistic violence and left in the violence that parents thought was acceptable.
  3. EXAMPLES that illustrate and provide evidence NV’s claim is true: For example, they removed “The Starving Children,” a story in which a mother is willing to eat her own child due to hunger. Also, in “Cinderella,” the birds poke out her stepsisters’ eyes.

Number #2 – ELABORATION &/or EXPLANATION – makes this paragraph a stand-out. Most students open with a topic sentence and then proceed directly to their examples. That is a perfectly fine way to write a paragraph, and you’ll see many such paragraphs in newspapers, magazines, and books, as well as on websites.

However, in analytical writing, which is what most college writing entails, we often want something “more,” and that something more goes by various names, including “elaboration,”development,” or “analysis,” among others.

Analysis is what NV has done here: she has analyzed what kind of violence the Grimm brothers included in the 2nd edition, and what kind they cut. Wonderful!

postscriptWilliam J. Kerrigan always told his students to “say a lot about a little, not a little about a lot.”

He was talking about paragraph development.

update 4/26/2012: I’ve posted a question for you to answer in the Comment.

What is a thesis statement?

From Indiana University’s Writing Tutorial Services:

Almost all of us—even if we don’t do it consciously—look early in an essay for a one- or two-sentence condensation of the argument or analysis that is to follow. We refer to that condensation as a thesis statement.

Why Should Your Essay Contain a Thesis Statement?

  • to test your ideas by distilling them into a sentence or two
  • to better organize and develop your argument
  • to provide your reader with a “guide” to your argument

In general, your thesis statement will accomplish these goals if you think of the thesis as the answer to the question your paper explores.

How to Write a Thesis Statement

Germanna Community College on the Introduction

The introduction is usually 3-6 sentences long, and it establishes the mood and setting of the essay. Try to utilize use one of the following creative approaches to introduce the subject:*

1. ..A meaningful quote
2. ..A personal experience (probably not in English
3. ..A universal idea
4. ..A vivid description
5. ..An analogy
6. ..Historical background of your topic
7. ..An anecdote (probably not in English 109…)
8. ..A question
9. ..A shocking statistic
10. A statement stressing the significance of your

The thesis statement will usually follow the creative opening; consequently, there should be a smooth transition from one to the other. The thesis statement is conventionally placed at the end of the introductory paragraph.

Guide to Writing an Essay
Germanna Community College

Numbers 1, 3, 8, and 10 are probably most useful for English papers. Number 6 could also work well, and I can imagine number 5 providing a good opening in some cases, too.

No doubt an experienced writer could use any device on the list and make it work, but I would advise novices to steer clear of numbers 2 and 7.

* I have yet to read a passage in which the word “utilize” sounds better than the word “use.” I’m sure they’re out there, but this isn’t one of them. Not for me, at least. Hence the copy edit.

Talking vs. writing, part 2

Linguist John McWhorter on talking versus writing:

Writing was only invented roughly 5,500 years ago with the emergence of cuneiform picture writing in Mesopotamia, what is now Iraq and parts of Iran, Syria and Turkey, whereas humanity arose a good 200,000 years ago, with language probably tracing back at least 50,000 years and most likely much further. According to one estimate, if Homo sapiens had existed for 24 hours, writing only came along after 11 p.m.

Thus spoken language is fundamental, while written language is an artifice. Not surprisingly, then, the earliest writing was based on the way people talk, and that meant short sentences with a direct logical throughline. Researchers have found that even educated people today speak in word packets of 7 to 10 words a pop.

Talking with Your Fingertips
April 23, 2012

Talking is old, writing is new.

(comma splice intentional)

Bird by bird

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Coherent paragraphs & the bride on her wedding day

Excellent advice from the Dartmouth Writing Program:

While coherence is a complicated and difficult matter to address, we do have a couple of tricks for you that will help your sentences to “flow.” Silly as it sounds, you should “dress” your sentences the way a bride might – wearing, as the saying goes, something old and something new. In other words, each sentence you write should begin with the old – that is, with something that looks back to the previous sentence. Then your sentence should move on to telling the reader something new. If you do this, your line of reasoning will be easier for your reader to follow.

While this advice sounds simple enough, it is in fact not always easy to follow.

Read the rest…(scroll down to page 3)

3 methods of creating a cohesive paragraph

Where does the thesis statement go?

The thesis statement should appear very close to the beginning of the paper. Some professors want it in a specific place — often the last sentence of the first paragraph. That’s as good a position as any, but I prefer not to be rigidly formulaic in such matters. In any case, though, the thesis statement should be very near the beginning (in the first paragraph or two).

– Maxine Rodburg and The Tutors of the Writing Center at Harvard University

Talking vs writing, part 1

[A]ny written language, whether English or Chinese, results from centuries of development and elaboration by a small number of users – clerics, administrators, lawyers and literary people. The process involves the development of complex syntactic constructions and complex vocabulary. In spite of the huge prestige enjoyed by written language in any literate society, spoken language is primary…

– Miller, Jim. An Introduction to English Syntax. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002. xii-xiv. Print.

Longer excerpt here