The Quest for the Perfect Sentence
One day the Nouns were clustered in the street.
An Adjective walked by, with her dark beauty.
The Nouns were struck, moved, changed.
The next day a Verb drove up, and created the Sentence.
– Kenneth Koch, Permanently
Some folks like fine wine. Some appreciate fine art. Then there are others who like and appreciate fine sentences. Fine sentences strung together produce fine writing. You only have to look at the number of people who like and share their love of books on Facebook or Pinterest, using humorous or insightful illustrated quotes, to quickly come to the conclusion that there are many book lovers out there.
Books filled with fine sentences rise to fame like glittering stars on an opening night. It isn’t a fluke when a poem, a novel or short story, a report, an article, a thesis or school essay is well written. It takes careful thought, it takes skill and it takes perseverance, blood, sweat and sometimes tears, at the expense of being cliché.
In her book The Writing Life (1989) Annie Dillard shares her story of someone she knew, a writing colleague, who was asked by a student, “Do you think I could be a writer?” “‘Well,’ the writer said, ‘do you like sentences?’” The student is somewhat surprised by the question, but Ms Dillard knows exactly what was meant. She explains, he was being told that, “if he liked sentences, he could begin,” and she remembers a similar conversation with a painter friend. “‘I asked him how he became a painter.’ He said, ‘I like the smell of paint.’” The point of these examples implies that in either case, you don’t begin with a magnificent beginning, either of the great novel or a masterpiece that will hang in the Louvre. We all begin with a feel for the essential ingredients of the medium, paint in one case, sentences in the other.
In his book How to Write a Sentence (2011) Stanley Fish adds his take on this. “But wouldn’t the equivalent of paint be words rather than sentences? Actually, no, because while you can brush or even drip paint on a canvas and make something interesting happen, just piling up words, one after the other, won’t do much of anything until something else has been added.”
The missing ingredient is called syntax; the arrangement of words that distinguishes meaning.
‘And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning.’
Anthony Burgess – extract from his novel Enderby Outside (1968)
Until words slide into their slots, they are disconnected text with no direction. Yet, once they are arranged into their ordained places they are bound by strings of relationships and bonded by threads of sense. Within the structure of the sentences, there are subjects or entities or actions or descriptions or indicators of behaviours and together, the threads knit together into proclamations about the world. It is these statements we can contemplate, approve, reject, admire or refine and stories are born.
The reader reads a story, sentence by sentence and searches for its own short story. Each sentence has to work hard. They have a strict code to follow and core business to do. They must name that person or thing and tell us something rational about them.
Elegant sentences, no matter how simple or complex is dependent on sound syntax. Syntax shows us clearly who does what, and sometimes to whom, and is the purpose of any sentence and most essentially, the thing we cannot do without.
Virginia Tufte, writes in her book Artful Sentences (2006), “It is syntax that gives the words the power to relate to each other in sequence … to carry meaning—of whatever—kind—as well as glow individually in just the right place.”
My own quest as a writer is to not only write words that glow but to learn to place words precisely in combinations with other words, also specifically placed, in order to sculpt or fashion a shape in space and time.
Patience & Time to Develop
A stand-alone sentence tells a mini story. A group of sentences clumped together tells a bunch of mini stories. These sentences link together and form a thread that, when read, becomes part of a larger story.
Without well-crafted sentences, the single sentence, or perhaps the threads of sentences, may get lost in meaning and become confusing for the reader. Well-written sentences aren’t a phenomenon that just happens. Writers, students, teachers, mothers, fathers, politicians, in fact, everyone I can think of, had to learn in a step-by-step process, starting in their early years.
From Prep onwards, students are taught the basic fundamental building blocks of how to write a sentence. In each successive year, teachers add to the students’ repertoire of sentence construction; their prior knowledge from previous lessons.
The early years are important for laying down the groundwork for which students build and extend themselves, right on into their senior years, in secondary school.
Students who understand the initial concepts, taught by their teachers early on, are capable and ready to transition to the next stage of learning. Those who miss an earlier stage through distractions in class, illness, gaps in learning, or simply not understanding the concept because of the way it is presented, are more at risk of falling behind and not grasping new content introduced; in some cases creating a snowball effect.
Why Some Students Struggle
Of course there are many reasons why a student might struggle constructing well-written sentences.
Firstly, they may not fully comprehend what a sentence is. The student may have missed some important information about the parts of a sentence and the way all the parts work together. This is generally picked up when a teacher is grading their students’ work. Once a student’s learning issue is diagnosed it becomes a case of helping the student revisit previous lessons learned and, step-by-step, guiding them to where they should be; the standard of their set of skills for their age and year level.
In a perfect world, this all sounds very easy and straightforward. However, some teachers run out of time with their busy teaching schedule and some students require more time than a teacher physically has to give an individual student. As sad as that sounds, it is true.
If this is the case, then students will continue to lag behind from where you would expect them to be on the curriculum indicators.
It is these at-risk students who then turn away from writing, cease to enjoy reading, and experience sluggish responses to formalised questioning or writing activities, which make up the majority of their lessons, and retreat from anything remotely like reading a book or writing their assignments. It becomes all too hard. And we all know how that feels, don’t we?
Another reason could lie in the fact that learning about the construction of sentences is boring. Oh boy. I know the B word exists, out there in the world, but NOT in this little black duck’s vocabulary. I have a real problem with the word boring and feel that it should be chopped roughly, then diced into small pieces and thrown into that pot of wombat stew the dingo was cooking up in Marcia K. Vaughan’s children’s story, Wombat Stew. The word boring, for me, is ooey & gooey and a great stew thickener. Boring is a choice, as far as I’m concerned, and one I choose not to choose. Now, does that make sense?
Having said that, I do understand the possibility of cases where teachers, who have their own style of teaching just as we all have our own learning styles, may be not connecting with particular students. We are all only human, aren’t we?
And, on another note …
Many adults, including teachers have gaps in their own knowledge and skills set. It’s important for teachers to take responsibility and brush up on their own skills, for the sake of themselves and their students. If a teacher feels less than confident, it is very hard to convince a class how to learn particular skills.
Engaging Students & Developing a Love for Writing
These days, teaching is at its exciting best. With all the fun ways to engage students, that weren’t at the fingertips of past teaching eras, how can teachers/tutors and students go wrong? There are many different ways to help students learn in their favoured learning styles.
Teaching grammar and sentence construction doesn’t have to be boring. If a teacher is creative, they can have their students eating out of their hand and begging for more. Now, wouldn’t that be something? It might even be a simple of case of taking the class outdoors for an occasional lesson, or playing a game that consolidates the skill, to take away that bitter boring pill.
Shadytree Books offers a tutoring service for Prep to Year 6 students in English, literacy, spelling, grammar, homework or extension work. We cater to all students with all learning styles. Once a student signs up, we have a quick and pain free assessment to help us learn fast what your student’s learning style is and how best we can help them.
Shadytree Books also offers children’s creative writing workshops and art workshops for our budding creatives out there. If you are interested in finding out more, please contact Deb here or write to her in the comments at the end of this post. At the moment we are taking expressions of interest for workshops and we have spaces available for tutoring.
If you are homeschooling and would like some ideas on how to help your child/ren with English, structured/formalised writing, creative writing, poetry or would like some information regarding short story or poetry writing competitions, then contact Deb via the Comments section at the bottom of this post or the Contact’s page.
Shadytree Books is a site where it is hoped to cultivate a community of people who like to share. So, if you have some ideas that have worked for you in the past for helping your students bring their sentences to life, please feel free to share. You never know, your idea or tip just might spark something in someone who is struggling. I know I’d love to hear your feedback.
Until next time,
Author: Debbie Smith
Debbie Smith is the author of a number of children’s short stories, poetry, picture books texts and is currently working on her first MG (middle-grade) novel, Hampton Common. She also writes for adults and has written the first draft of her adult outback novel, Lanolin on the Boards. Her debut children’s picture book, If You Meet an Elephant, is COMING SOON in 2019. Read about it here.
Debbie is the Founder and Creative Director of Shadytree Books. She tutors students in the Language Arts and Literacy areas, coordinates and runs Children’s Creative Writing and Art workshops for Shadytree Books’ StoryArts Holiday Program.
Debbie lives on the gorgeous Sunshine Coast near the lovely beaches of Noosa and it’s rich Hinterland life with her husband and gorgeous Cavoodle, Oscar. When Debbie takes time away from writing, she can be found at the farm riding her daughter’s Lippizaner horse, Obie, and handling and ground training her yearling Appaloosa foal, Joey.