Words, then sentences. The building blocks of good writing. But how much control do you have over your sentences? Can you write a 268 word sentence?
The sentence must be correctly punctuated–like this one from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn? (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Bantam Classics) by Mark Twain.)
Here, Twain takes the long sentence to describe a sunrise over the Mississippi River and you can feel his love for this landscape.
“. . . then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee deep, and watched the daylight come. Not a sound, anywheres–perfectly still–just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bull-frogs a-cluttering, maybe. The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line; that was the woods on t’other side–you couldn’t make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness, spreading around; then the rive softened up, away off, and warn’t black any more, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along ever so far away–trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks?rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds come so far; and by-and-by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there’s a snag there in the swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off of the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, and you make out a log cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank on t’other side of the river, being a woodyard, likely, and piled by them cheats so you can throw a dog through it anywheres; then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there so cool and fresh, and sweet to smell, on account of the woods and flowers; but sometimes not that way, because they?ve left dead fish laying around, gars, and such, and they do get pretty rank; and next you’ve got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going it!”
Of course, Twain could have divided this into many shorter sentences. Why did he choose to use one long sentence instead? I think to connect all these things into one description of the sunrise which happens so fast, but takes much longer to describe.
Ursula K. LeGuin, in her book, Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew, suggests that you learn to use both long and short sentences in your stories.
Can you control your sentences? Can you write a 268 word sentence? Can you use sentence fragments correctly and effectively? Look at the first paragraph above. It begins with sentence fragments to set the topic. Effective? Can you interrupt a sentence with another sentence and correctly punctuate it? Again, see the first paragraph above.
About ten years ago, a friend and I went through Ann Longknife, Ann and K.D. Sullivan?s book, The Art of Styling Sentences book together online and studied sentences. Each week, we took one of the twenty sentence patterns and tried to use it in sentences. We posted on the same mailing lists, so we often looked for each others? posts and critiqued the effectiveness of the sentences and its punctuation.
It was one of the best things I’ve ever done to learn to control my writing.
So, I’ve used the book in my Freshman Composition classes, because I believe that learning control of sentences is paramount to good writing. For each essay, students had to include the assigned sentence patterns somewhere in their essay. Usually, there were 3-4 assigned sentence patterns and it was relatively easy to find places to use them. After practicing sentence variety–what we?re really talking about is the ability to effectively vary sentence structure, and thus, rhythms of the writing–for several essays, I upped the ante. For their last essay, they must write at least a 50 word sentence, correctly punctuated, and an effective sentence fragment. If they write a 100-word sentence, I thought this assignment was so crucial that I gave a ten-point bonus, or a letter-grade better.
It was incredible. Twenty-year old young men would come bouncing into class, crowing about their literary success. “Mrs. Pattison! Mrs. Pattison. I got a 125-word sentence!”
What fun! And it is fun to be able to control your writing on the level of sentences and words. If you are like many of us in writing, self-taught, I urge you to find some way to practice control of your sentences and punctuation for sentences. Words and sentences–these are the beginnings of control of voice.
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