Category Archives: Teaching writing

Clauses and Conjunctions–Oh, My!

Ball of letters tangled, like grammar rules

“Grammar rules” can look like this!

I came across this nice post from Deborah Lee Luskin over at Live to Write—Write to Live that lays out the rules governing various kinds of clauses and the conjunctions that attach them to each other.

What this post supplies is “meta-knowledge”: knowledge ABOUT knowledge, that is, about the kind of knowledge writers need. We also need an inner grammar that allows us to construct functioning sentences instinctively in a language that is our native tongue. Growing up with a native tongue allows us to internalize the ways sentences work in our linguistic world. (When we learn second or third languages as adults, it takes a while to develop this internal grammar because our minds are pre-programmed to acquire grammar when we are very young, from listening to and interacting with those around us.)

This inner grammar serves us for speech, even if we don’t know “the rules” from book-learning—all the names of the things we’re doing. It functions less effectively for writing.

Why is this so?

First, writing is not a pre-programmed activity the way spoken language is. Writing is a LEARNED activity. Stanislas Dehaene argues in Reading in the Brain that vision and sound operate in different parts of our brains; our synapses have to remodel themselves to make the connection between visual symbols and the sounds that carry meaning.

Second, the punctuation that connects sentence parts varies between arbitrary conventions like putting a comma after the name of a state and important signposts for meaning like using commas to set off nonessential elements. Both the conventions and the signposts have to be overlaid on our spoken language awareness, requiring new coordination between parts of the brain.

Finally, written language demands a big burst of cognitive energy, especially when we haven’t had a lot of practice and have to think about every period and every modifier.

All these issues separate writing from speaking. They make the process of learning to convert our native language to writing into a secondary process more burdensome and harder to learn than simply learning to speak.

On the one hand, I think every writer should know the information in Deborah’s post: the parts of a sentence and the ways they work together. On the other hand, after twenty-five years of teaching college writing, I believe what the research into the acquisition of grammar “rules” tells us: people don’t learn these skills from lists of rules. Even the ability to recognize “a complete sentence” has seemed unteachable more often than not. A writer either has it or she does not.

Ironically, every indication is that we learn sentence structure and the conventions and signposts the same way we learn to talk: from being widely exposed to written language from a very young age. Reading comes first. Practice in writing to communicate is also vital. When we start trying to use writing to express needs or ideas we want taken seriously, we revise and work until we develop multiple strategies for making ourselves understood. That means acquiring a lot of rules.

To be fair, teachers can never tell just how much effort any given college student has put into learning the strategies for successful “grammatical” writing. This kind of knowledge is notoriously boring. Yet I have seen isolated examples of people who seemed almost illiterate and then somehow just figured it all out (for example, a young man I knew who joined the Army and emerged a totally different writer).

Does all this mean I think aspiring (and successful) writers shouldn’t learn the information in the post I’m sharing? Not at all. But just as important: keep reading. Watch how the writers you admire use clauses, conjunctions, and punctuation. Copy their styles to see what your book would sound like using their methods. Play.

At the risk of angering indie authors everywhere, I suggest you look for your best examples of these rules applied correctly in books, articles, and essays that have been traditionally published. Lord, no, editors in traditional houses aren’t right all the time, but more eyes have examined the writing and the more egregious errors have been winnowed out.

And don’t rely on Grammarly or other so-called editing bots. (Yes, I can start a sentence with “and,” thank you.) They don’t know what a complete sentence is, either.

Or when it’s okay not to use one. The grammar you can ignore if you want to, and why—that’s the kind of knowledge you really need!

How did you learn “the rules”? Share your strategies!




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Terrific Post on Style for Writers!

Chuck Wendig responds to a reader who finds sentence fragments troublesome (they make writing “unreadable,” in the commenter’s view). If you haven’t met Chuck yet, you’re in for a ride, though you’d best leave your Sunday-go-to-meetin’ expectations at home. I envy his verbal energy!

Explosive set

What I love about this post is that it celebrates the incredible flexibility of language, all the ways that writers can whip it up and lay it down and make it their own (in the great tradition of Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland!). Wendig illustrates the power of the dreaded fragment with examples from some of the greatest of writers. He reminds us that rules are the groundwork but imagination and a writer’s ear are the scaffolding that builds palaces on those placid rules.

My own caveat is that when I was teaching, so many of my students had a tough time recognizing things like fragments. Especially fragments! The lack of some kind of internal sense of what “a sentence” is may not have handicapped those with the drive and verve to become creative writers; imagination and ear may have been enough.

But I argue (and Wendig cautions) that it’s vital to learn such “basics” of language because if you don’t, you can’t make choices. You can’t switch your verbal code to fit it to different contexts, for example, to a business setting where a lively fragment-sequined style will simply be out of place. You probably can’t write that query letter we all sweat over. At least you can’t write it with confidence that you can decide when to explode on the page and when to hold back.

So many of my students hoped to be great novelists. I couldn’t help worrying that without the ability to choose the linguistic strategies they needed in a given context, they would be handicapped if the whole great-novelist thing didn’t come off. As it so often doesn’t . . . at least not as fast as we’d like it to.

Do you agree with Wendig? What is your fragment strategy? Do you have a favorite “fragment passage” to pass on?



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Battle is Lost!

A sad day for grammar purists: The Washington Post will allow “singular they”!

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How to Build Beats and Style in Your Writing!

Found this terrific piece on cadence and beats at the sentence level on Writers in the Storm. I especially like the rhetorical devicesTypewriter and flowers guest blogger Margie Lawson provides. As a rhetorician, I’ve encountered many of these in my research, and I’ve used many, even if only intuitively, in my writing.

I’ve written about some of these in my Novel First Lines series, and in my post on the effects of commas on cadence. Meter and rhythm are powerful lures in the first lines of a book or story. For a wonderful discussion of rhythm and cadence as persuasive devices, check out Martha Kolln’s textbook (find used copies), Rhetorical Grammar.

See if you use any already—and what you can learn to use.

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How Much Grammar Do You Need? Part IV

Here are some “grammar” rules you DON’T need!

That is, rules that aren’t even really rules. And even if they were rules, they’d fall into that category Joe Williams created of “rules” that are more noticeable and disruptive when they are followed than when they aren’t, because they’re alien to the way most of speak and write.Man worrying about his writing

Of course, if you could see into the innermost grammar hearts of all those agents and editors to whom you direct your missives, you would find people who cringe every time you fail to observe one of these mythological rules. My point is that convoluting your prose to avoid them, or obsessing over them to the point that your creativity begins to ice over, is counterproductive. In these cases, let your natural ear as an English speaker rule.

Here they are (I’ll probably come up with others and invite you to submit your candidates):

Beginning a sentence with “because.”

Williams says that there’s no sign of this prohibition in any handbook he ever saw, and I echo that. Yet, even thirty years after Williams debunked it, my students would still cite this “rule” to each other in their peer reviews.

In my view—a pure hypothesis, I admit—this instruction arose from some teacher’s worry that clauses prefaced with “because” all too often were never connected to the necessary independent clause and thus end up as fragments. We do talk this way: “Because I said so.” “Because I don’t want to.” “Because I like it.”

It’s a fact that the minute you put the word “because” in front of a sentence, it becomes “dependent,” in need of a crutch to make sense. In conversation, the missing information is already present in the ongoing conversation. In formal Standard Written English, the missing components should be supplied in an independent clause attached to the “because clause.” “Because I like it, I often swim in the lake in winter.” (Or because I’m a glutton for punishment.)

It’s probably more natural to reverse the clauses: “I often swim in the lake in the winter because. . . .” But there’s nothing grammatically wrong with starting with the “because clause.” It’s a stylistic choice, not a grammar/moral-fiber choice.

Ending a sentence with a preposition.

I was startled years ago when, at my university, the speech communication people presented the writing faculty with a list of the things students ought to be learning in first-year writing, and the list was just a bunch of grammar “rules,” this one prominently among them. Honestly, I thought anyone teaching writing in college would have a more nuanced idea of what “writing” consists of than that list.

In order to follow this supposed rule, you have to become so rigidly formal that your efforts wave and shout from the page. “Who were you talking to?” becomes “To whom were you talking?” Or say you’re synopsizing in a query and you need a sentence like, “His daughter was the only person he’d confessed to.” Is it really better to write, “His daughter was the only person to whom he’d confessed”? It depends entirely on how “formal” you want to sound. Personally, I’d probably find a way to “write around” this conundrum, but I’m making a point. (We’ll get to the who/whom issue soon enough.)

There’s a very famous example of the preposition-at-the-end issue often attributed to Winston Churchill. Supposedly he responded to an editor’s efforts to eliminate terminal prepositions with a note: “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.” (My dad loved to quote this at me.) For a lively discussion of this supposed quote, see this post by Geoffrey K. Pullum at The Language Log. This post claims, from a reputable source, that the rule that you can’t end a sentence with a preposition “was apparently created ex nihilo in 1672 by the essayist John Dryden.” The post gives several other examples of smart choices in which the preposition stays where it wants to, including a discussion of the kind of English verb that includes words generally defined as prepositions, such as “put up with.” Separate these at your peril.

Splitting infinitives

I’m old enough to remember expletives fired at the epithet for Star Trek as it shifted into warp speed: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Eeek! Split infinitive—separating the “to” from its partner, “go,” which together create the “infinitive” form of the verb, which in English is created exactly this way: a main form of the verb plus “to.” To eat. To see. To write. If you’ve ever taken a foreign language, say Spanish or French, you also learned about infinitives, the more-or-less “base” form of the verb: estar, hablar, manger, sortir.

You’ll note that these infinitives belonging to “romance languages” (not because they’re sexy but because they come from “Roman” or Latin ancestors) are one-word infinitives, not two-word infinitives as in English. At some point, some upmarket grammarians decided that Latin was a more “advanced” or “noble” language than English; English needed to be elevated by becoming more like Latin. You can’t split an infinitive in Latin, for obvious reasons; so you shouldn’t split one in English either. I guess you’ve noticed how much better English sounds as a result of this rule.

Or does it? Does “To go boldly where no man has gone before” really sound better? Not to my ear. One of the reasons the revised version clunks is that the original, “to boldly go,” is in “iambic pentameter,” the poetic meter most natural to English—in fact, the one used by Shakespeare. Here’s a nice account of the rule and advice about (not) applying it.

The upshot: listen to your sentences. Put the adverb (the “boldly”) and the preposition where they most want to go.

Send me your candidates: Rules we don’t need!

Happy editing!


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Why Writers MUST Read

A wonderful perk of being retired from teaching is rediscovering what it’s like to read fiction for pleasure. I assume I don’t have to convince any writers of the pleasures of a good book!

But my new reading experience has reminded me why writers MUST read. True, we know we have to read in our own genres. After all, we have to be able to tell agents and editors we query how our own work fits into a landscape with which we had better be intimately familiar. But we need to read—we MUST read—more widely than that.

We need to know, we must know, what works for people who are not us. In my lifetime of reading fiction, slowed but not terminated by my years of teaching, I have always been surprised to discover what other people consider good. I hope I’m not the only reader to roll my eyes once in a while and wonder, “Who’d’a thunk anyone would publish that?”

But “that” turns out to have five-star reviews on Amazon, enormous followings on Goodreads, and thousands of Facebook likes. I’ve moved from “I’d never do that!” to “What can I learn from this?” For example, from watching how different kinds of writers win over readers, I learned the importance of the “pet-the-dog” scene. The protagonist you want your readers to stick with has to do one small “good” thing somewhere, somehow, in the book’s opening moments. Related: the “stop-being-mean-to-her” scene, wherein your protagonist is being treated unjustly. I didn’t learn about these strategies from reading Shakespeare—although I assure you, he does them, too.

In other words, there’s some reason a lot of people like the books you hate. There’s gold in figuring out what that reason is.

We need to know, we must know, that the kinds of books we love do exist, sometimes in the most unexpected places. I read so much about the fall of publishing, about the sheer inability of those of us who might once have been indulgently called “midlist” authors to persevere. I hear so often that unless you’re already a celebrity or a world-renowned expert, you only have two options for your quiet, literary, sort-of-mystery-but-sort-of-not: either self-publish it or stick it in the drawer.

Yet over and over I take a chance on a new book only to discover wonderful writing still bubbling up out there. I don’t say it necessarily gets shelved face-out at Barnes & Noble or makes it to the top at Amazon. I’m reading a terrific book right now that will probably never do either (Mary O’Dell’s Cyn, from Turquoise Morning Press). But good writing gets noticed, and it gets published. And I get to read it by opening myself to that chance.

More to the point, I get the reassurance that continuing to grow as a writer is worth the effort. I can’t write as well as the great writers I admire, but I can learn to write better than I do now, and it’s because I find these great writers out there through reading that I have the faith to soldier on.

We learn what we forgot to do in our own books. This is a little different from the strategies in point one above; it’s not about devices, it’s about fundamentals. Writing every day, deep in a story, we get into habits and patterns that, in my case at least, lull me so that I forget something vital I should be attending to, something I’ve left out. Often it’s something that doesn’t come naturally to me, that I need to work at. For example, the other day I went to our local bookseller (Carmichael’s) to redeem a gift card. The book I wanted, Ben H. Winter’s World of Trouble, was out of stock, but I did find a discounted copy of The Girl on the Train.

I expected some sort of mystery/thriller, not too far from my genre. I expected one of those bang-up openings that set me on the edge of a cliff, teetering. Instead, I found myself in a tranquil, slow-moving country, listening in on the placid observations of a muted soul.

I thought of all my anguish trying to make my opening pages electric. Here I was holding a bestseller whose author saw no such need. Then, slowly, I began to understand what she was doing—something I struggle to do enough.

This was/is a classic, masterly demonstration of that single overriding rule for all writers of fiction: show, don’t tell.

From what this character noticed and how she reacted to what she noticed, she slowly let me build for myself a rich, nuanced sense of a soul in deep trouble, a world alight with danger, if not the guns-and-daggers kind (not yet, at least). A soul in trouble, a soul in danger: the classic “it” that a story either has or doesn’t. And all without ever shaking a finger at me to tell me what I was supposed to see or know.

That night, I got out my notebook. Above one column, I wrote, “What I want readers to know about Sarah.” Above the next column, I wrote, “What she does to show it.” I sat for an hour, working my way out of that all-too-available strategy of having Sarah tell readers how she was feeling, what she feared, worried about. What does Sarah do to let readers sense her danger, understand how she got here, so that they’ll be shouting at her, “No, no, don’t do that! Do this!” and sweating (I hope) to see if she does.

It’s not that I didn’t know this basic rule. But inside the walls of my own imagination, I had lost sight of it. I didn’t even miss it, until I wandered out into other landscapes and saw another writer doing it—when I picked up that book and read.

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The Answer is 42

Having had the benefit of a nice road trip during which I was able to contemplate the issue I’ve been exploring in the last few posts—the virtues or lack thereof of letting learners figure things out for themselves—I’ve arrived at an unexpected conclusion. The answer to the question of whether this is the ideal pedagogical method, for teaching writing or many other things, is—drum roll—42!

No, seriously, the definitive answer is yes and no. Or, put differently, it depends. Or: on one hand, on the other. Or possibly: sometimes.

A quick recap: I’ve always wanted to learn programming. Told that Python was useful and accessible, I bought a $35 book. Within hours, I was just barely resisting the urge to hurl the book at the stupidly blinking computer screen. The author adopted the “throw them in and they’ll teach themselves to swim (or not)” school at its most extreme. He provided readers with code they were to dutifully copy, producing a simple game called “Find the Wumpus.” I copied, I played, I found the Wumpus. But throughout, I had to puzzle out for myself what different commands meant—for that matter, even how to write and run a command, which was one of the numerous things this author assumed I already knew how to do!

I showed this book to a mathematician friend adept at programming. He told me to go to Louisville and throw it off the Big 4 Bridge. “This is completely wrong. The way to teach programming is to provide short bits of code that illustrate specific commands and functions. Get another book.”

I already had, being a Very Smart Girl. I bought two on my Kindle. I perused the first one. Within just a few screens, I knew what operators were, and what some major ones did. I knew what functions were. (I already pretty much knew what variables were.) I knew the difference between a number and a string! (It’s just a matter of punctuation. If it’s inside quote marks, it’s “text” and it’s a “string,” Ain’t that cool?)

And yet.

I learned how to tell the computer to add 2 and 3 and get 5. I learned how to convert the price of an Apple computer into euros using functions. I learned how many spaces I could insert before a decimal.

No doubt there are people out there who need to do these things. Who want to do them. It was unclear to me why I would want to do them.

Here’s the upshot. The Find-the-Wumpus game, maddening though it was, Continue reading

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Maybe Just a Tiny Bit More Rant. . . .

And some thoughts on what it means for writing.

Last time, I wrote about the tendency of the author of my beginning Python book (computer programming) to leave out what seemed to me simple yet rather foundational instructions for the beginners he was supposedly addressing, my implication being that he failed to understand his readers’ needs, thus undercutting the effectiveness of his text. I wanted to take the experience of trying to follow his directions toward a discussion of why (in my experience) many writers, including writers of fiction, seem to actively resent being asked to explain themselves to readers.

But I have a new gripe after working through Chapter 2. (I suppose I’ll have to take a vow not to collapse into a rant after every chapter! I do plan to buy another book to supplement this one, so if you were thinking of suggesting that. . . .)

In this chapter he gives you lots of steps. He gives you whole programs to copy into your text editor (characteristically without explaining that it’s in the text editor that you’ll find that rather essential “run” command!).

But along with these whole-cloth programs, does he tell you what you just did, why you did it, and how it worked?

You have probably intuited that no, he does not.

Nor does he define terms as consistently as he would have you believe. “Because the player enters a string instead of a number—” Excuse me. I most certainly entered a number. I assume he doesn’t mean we’re doing some version of string theory here.

He implies—actually more than implies—that he’s operating under the theory that readers will learn best by doing and then by figuring out the “grammar” of this language on their own as they go along. I think he’ll eventually tell me some of the stuff I want so much to know. In the Find-the-Wumpus game he has me coding, in “raw­_input(“>”),” what in the world is that little caret for? In “for i in cave_numbers” when you’re setting up caves that the player can see from a given cave, where did that “i” come from? Is it some arbitrary identifier? I could pick “s” or “m” just as easily? Maybe I should try the substitution and see what happens. But why not tell me instead of just dropping an unexplained item into the program for me to copy? Am I really better off figuring such things out on my own? Continue reading

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Writing the Synopsis: Or, What Took Me So Long?

I’ve been away for a few days, and if you’ve been watching the weather reports, you know what I spent much of the day before yesterday dealing with–yes, it’s a four-letter word beginning with “S.”

I’ve also been dealing with an eight-letter word beginning with “S”: “Synopsis.” I’ve never met a writer yet who liked dealing with synopses. I’ve always believed I couldn’t write them–just didn’t get it. I’d tell what I thought was the story I’d told, only to have readers respond, “I’m totally confused.”

I faced the need to confront the demon synopsis because I’m trying to get my out-of-print suspense novels up as e-books, and I need covers. I had some ideas of my own, but my excellent and candid volunteer critics (or should I say “impressed” critics in the sense that sailors off merchant ships were once impressed into the British navy) generally agreed that I should solicit ideas from actual designers. At my university, we have students who do superb work. But could I ask students to read two fairly hefty novels between class assignments? Uh, no, not if I want to get the books up any time soon. Hence, synopses.

My first efforts were on a par with my earlier efforts. A masochistic colleague whose opinion I value actually volunteered to read the books and write the things for me. I spared him: read two hefty books between grading assignments in four (yes, four!) writing classes?!!! So he read the synopses I produced. I reproduce here the bare bones of this experience, because it was a eureka experience. For the first time, I was like, “Oh!” It’s what can happen when you have a truly good reader who is willing to tell you the truth and you are ready to listen–a crucial component, but I was desperate. They always want a synopsis. Who wants two pages to be the death of a three-hundred-page gem?

Here is the heart of what my colleague Tom O’Neal wrote for me:

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Digression Again: Struggling with Writing

I’ve been researching how people learn to write and what can stand in their way. My interest in this topic stems, first, from my own experiences as a college writing teacher (with a PhD in “composition studies”), and second, a book project I’m working on for college students facing their first college writing class, whether as recent high-school graduates or returning adults.

A lot of research indicates that, as with many other cognitive functions, early experiences matter. This seems to be particularly true for writing. After all, writing is not “natural.” No one is “hard-wired” to do it, as we all seem to be for speech. Neuroscientist Stanislaus Dehaene explains current theory suggesting that our brains must redirect neural pathways “designed” for other functions into the unnatural and unevolved task of connecting visual images with the sounds that then translate into the words we’re familiar with. The earlier we recognize that these visual stimuli are important components of our environments and have meaning, the more likely this process will occur when our brains are most plastic, most ready to manage this redirection. Intuitively it makes sense that people who had the richest literacy experiences from the earliest ages will have the most time to hone this use of their brains.

It’s also clear that writing makes huge demands on our cognitive resources. I’m reading research that indicates that even such tasks as typing, when they’re not largely automatic, steal working memory and cognitive energy from the higher-order processes that go into more complex writing tasks. And when we’re dealing with multiple tasks with high cognitive load, like accessing new, complex material, something has to give.

So my conundrum: Do I tell potential readers of my book on college writing that if they missed out in those early years, they’re doomed?

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