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