Writing Good Nonfiction Sentences… one exercise each Friday.
First the necessary introduction. NOTE: several of these exercises are inspired by How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish, Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin, and other sources.
A good essay has a goal—to convince, delight, enlighten, instruct, warn, or to review and question. Part of becoming an accomplished writer involves understanding the work that every word must accomplish.
Each sentence has specific work to do. In a very real sense, sentences are the basic building blocks of writing. Lay down one word after another until you have created a logical idea in the mind of the reader and that is a sentence. Do it with grace and style and that’s good writing. But in order to write a good sentence (or to read and appreciate a good one), it helps to understand the various ways a sentence can function in the essay. Forget about content (for the moment) and try pushing the envelope with these exercises about sentences.
THE EXERCISES: These brief exercises require you to write a nonfiction sentence. Sometimes they require that you write several. Look at the examples and follow the directions after “assignment.” AND Whether this is specified or not in the instructions, on the same page you should also explain the sentence in detail. Don’t be surprised if the explanation takes up a lot more space and time than the sentence. What does the sentence you wrote accomplish? What did you learn by writing it and thinking about it? How might you have learned a skill you can transfer to other writing?
That said, this assignment is pushes sentence-length to create a single “monster sentence.” There is a model and explanation following. My students loved this assignment.
2. The monster sentence. Begin with a simple short sentence—“I baked bread”—subject verb object—and then turn it into a “monster sentence” of at least 100 words. This exercise is straight out of Stanley Fish's playbook. Here’s my 169 word model built from: "My mother taught me to bake bread." I was still a young girl, still trying to be the sort of person society expected girls to be in the 50s and 60s by doing the chores expected of of girls, when my mother taught me to bake bread and I followed her recipe, stirring the soft flour—flour dusted all over the kitchen counter and into the air—and kneading the yeasty dough before folding it into four loaf pans, and waiting the long hour while my own bread baked until it came from the oven: beautiful fragrant loaves all golden brown and steamy that cooled on a rack before I was allowed to cut warm slices, thick and crumbly and spread with margarine—which my mother bought to save money—and the bright red jam Mom made from sugar and fresh strawberries that I helped her pick north of Seattle; and each bite deep into the gooey slices left my cheeks sticky with jam, and together my brother and I stuffed ourselves with the bread I made. Following Stanley Fish’s model and suggested assignment, my example above took me less than twenty minutes plus two five minute edits. It’s not great, but that’s not the point because Fish says writing the monster sentence is the easy part. The more difficult and time-consuming part of the exercise lies in explaining how my monster works: The sentence begins with background, “I was still a young girl” to establish the period in which the events occur and the expectations of the times, as well as motivation for learning a skill. I am doing what people expect of girls in my youth. At this point the skill I am about to introduce sounds faintly onerous, if not downright sexist. The root of the sentence is “I learned to bake bread” with information about who taught me, my mother. The next section explains the process of mixing the dough, kneading, and baking and provides appealing sensory details about warmth and scent of the baked bread itself. This long sentence now begins to turn with the smell and warmth of the baked bread. Explaining the use of margarine instead of butter suggests this is not a financially well-off family. Introducing the strawberries and the jam made from them, another process I participated in, suggest some pride in accomplishment, which I certainly felt at the time. Finally, slicing the bread and eating it and the introduction of my brother complete the shift from chore to pleasure, from society’s expectations of me, to personal pride in my accomplishment at being able to bake bread like my mother and share it with my brother. This also suggests that I see the entire experience as something shared from beginning to end. EXERCISE: Write a short sentence—subject, verb, object—, and create a 100+ word monster of it. Use every trick you know to ensure that the sentence is grammatically correct and not a run-on—use long dashesThen explain what you’ve created, reviewing what you’ve written, phrase by phrase. NOTE: The explanation should be longer than the original sentence. Write nonfiction, then explain your work.
Debrief on Monday. I hope someone(s) will share what they have written. These really are wonderful to share.