Building BlocksThe building blocks of most forms of writing -- fiction or non-fiction -- are
- Learning to choose the most effective words includes using the dictionary a lot, reading widely, becoming sensitve to connotations, getting honest and specific instead of general and blurry.
- Exercises on words:
- Big Words
- Simple Words
- Crazy Words
- Loaded Words
- Details, Details
- Strunk & White's Elements of Style is an excellent resource for learning basic sentence structure. Another is reading widely, and talking with people who have read widely, who tend to use the grammatical structures they have picked up from reading.
- Traditional grammatical structure is not absolutely necessary -- it's changing as we speak, anyway. However, accustomed sentence structures generally communicate most effectively. If you do want to use something different for effect, the better you understand what you are doing, the more effective you will be.
- Exercises on sentence structure
- A paragraph is a mini-story: it has a beginning, a middle and an end. If you can construct one paragraph, you can construct anything.
- Exercises on paragraph structure
In the English language, the basic sentence structure is noun-verb -- "Who does what?" -- or the additional "noun-verb-noun" -- "Who does what to what?" The basic analysis of a sentence, as one style book puts it, is "Who is kicking who?" Where things start to get confusing is when phrases begin to be layered on to describe when, how, what direction and all other details and nuances of the action taking place.
At one time we were taught in school to diagram sentences in order to isolate clauses and how they related to each other and to figure out the meaning of a sentence. Another way to analyze a sentence is to ask the famous journalism questions: who, what, when, where, why? What object is being described? What is it doing? To what? How?
- Scott ran.
- This is the simplest sentence -- a person (noun, Scott) does an action (verb, ran.)
- Scott hit the ball.
- This is the next simplest sentence -- a person (noun, Scott) does an action (verb, hit) to an object (noun, ball.) Followed by "Scott ran" this begins to tell a story.
- Scott ran around the bases.
- This adds an example of a clause, "around the bases" to describe how Scott ran, in what direction.
- Scott hit the ball hard and level, then ran around the bases as fast as he could.
- Getting more complex, this sentence describes two actions, in sequence, with details about the how of each.
- Pick several sentences, from a recent newspaper or your favorite story, and analyze who is doing what to what and how. Can you write alternate forms of those sentences that would be clearer?
- Next, analyze several sentences from your own prose writing (poetry is more complex, so I suggest sticking to prose.) Who is doing what to what and how? Once you have identified those answers, can you phrase the sentence any more clearly?
The end goal of this exercise is to improve your skill at organizing what you want to say and getting it across. If you can organize your thoughts into one clear paragraph, and string several paragraphs together in a logical flow, you have the basic skill to create anything -- story, newspaper article, or essay.
Sample ParagraphsA traditional paragraph structure is "State the point you want to make. State backup for that point. Restate, or extend, the point."
A sample of this form:"We long for closeness. We live cheek-by-jowl in apartment buildings, organize office parties, buy magazines with articles, quizzes and reams of advice on building relationships. We grow more and more distant from each other."The first sentence states a concept. The next gives detail on how that concept works out. The last contrasts with the first, and provides a springboard for further discussion.
Other forms of paragraphs:
-- from David Bloom, Real Change 3/1/99Between 1981 and 1986 the federal budget for housing programs was cut from $31 billion to $10 billion per year. During the same period federal tax expenditures in the form of homeowner mortgage interest tax deductions increased from $8.2 billion to $28.6 billion. Only 3% of these tax breaks went to lower income households.Sentences citing simple statistics build one on the other to communicate a message -- "show don't tell". This paragraph is organized to prove a point by citing facts.The underemployment rate increased from 8% to 10% between 1970 and 1995, while an estimated 30% of the workforce is now employed in temporary and part-time positions. These positions typically offer lower wages, fewer benefits and less job security. "A second indicator of diminished work opportunities is declining or stagnating wages," says the National Coalition for the Homeless. For increasing numbers of Americans, work provides no escape from poverty. The average income of the poorest fifth of families fell $210 in 1996. In 1997, the minimum wage was 15% below its average purchasing power in the 1970's. Declining wages, in turn, have put housing out of reach for many workers, as we see the absurd situation of 30% of Seattle area shelter clients who say they are employed.This paragraph is also organized by "step-building." The central idea behind the words, that poverty and homelessness are the result of economic forces and not any of the stereotyped claims of "laziness", etc., drives the selection of sentences to demonstrate the idea.
-- from "A Homeless Woman's Story" in Real Change, 3/1/99Having been homeless the winter of '95 & '96 has left an indelible mark on my heart. It has filled my heart and mind with compassion and understanding and now an urgency to let people know that there are real human hearts in the homeless. Not only was I homeless, I was bi-polar and without medication.The first sentence makes a statement. The second sentence fills out the detail of that statement -- how homelessness marked her heart. The third sentence makes another statement adding more detail about her homelessness, and will lead into further paragraphs.
-- from Geoff Cole's Education series in Real Change, 3/1/99 articleThe Foundry, a non-profit organization supported by the Speakeasy internet café, organizes the computer literacy component of the course. Twice a week, volunteers from the City Year program of Americorps teach the two hour class, which is attended by four to twelve students at any given session. Because their homelessness has kept them out of school, most of the students have had little or no experience using computers. The goal, according to Ali and co-instructor Sophia Rodriguez, is to move students from using the mouse to building a web page. (To see previous class work, visit www.speakeasy.org/foundry.)Each sentence here flows into the next, describing who is doing what and why.While the expressed purpose is to develop computer literacy, Ali, Sophia and the instructors at Orion Center see changes in confidence and self-esteem as well. In the beginning, students waited to be guided at every step; now they take the initiative to learn on their own. "When something didn't work they blamed themselves," says Ali. "Now they're more confident that their steps are correct and they tend to look for problems in the computer." Which, she says, is where most of them are.Each sentence and paragraph continues to build, describing the central theme that effective education is much more than simple skill-building.
Reading and writing skills have also improved. As kids begin thinking about what to put on their web page, says Ali, they go from "no interest in writing down anything" to eagerness to express themselves. Also, she says, about half the current group have trouble reading, so getting them to read was "like pulling teeth." But when Ali gave them a story she'd written to introduce computer jargon in context, they read with enthusiasm.
Describing how he's changed, Jason, one of the students, says he came to the program without a goal and now wants to become a mechanic. Instead of the extremes of hopelessness or fantasy expectations, he sees progress toward his goal as "climbing stairs." For Donald, another Foundry student, the experience of the class, particularly building a web page, has made him happier. "I'm proud to have made something of my own."
-- from Tim Harris's Klassic Korner, Real Change 9/1/99Achilles is cheesed because Agamemnon seriously disses him in front of the troops, and sulks in his tent for three-quarters of a book that is, oddly, about him. Achilles has no known opinions regarding english poetry or stupid beards, but goes totally postal over the death of his buddy Patrocles. This is normally seen as "hubris," or overweening pride, but Knox brilliantly regards it all as "godlike self-absorption," which will be the topic of the next "Klassics Korner."How would you describe this paragraph?
- Take some sample paragraphs from your own recent reading and analyze the structure. Why did the author put the sentences together that way? Would you have arranged it differently? Why?
- Now take some paragraphs from your own recent writing. What is the goal of the story/essay/article as a whole? What is the goal of each paragraph? How does the structure of each paragraph serve that goal? How does each sentence work toward it? Can you do it differently?
Anitra L. Freeman
StreetWrites Exercise Page
Kalliope Poetry Exercise Archive
StreetWrites Recommends: Writing Workshops