- If you’re struggling to generate sentences, the problem may be very simple: you may not have enough practice writing sentences. Practicing writing sentences will ease your cognitive burden when you write.
- One way to improve your sentences is to rewrite sentences from texts you admire.
- If you want to take it one step further, practicing rewriting sentences from texts you admire for several different reading audiences.
- The best way to learn about good writing is to read widely in a variety of genres.
- Thinking about writing better sentences isn’t enough. You have to actually write lots of sentences to acquire expertise in the skill of generating good, clear sentences.
Let’s say that several months ago you had an idea that excited you intellectually. You felt that maybe you had something to contribute to a conversation in your discipline. You identified the sources you wanted to use. You did your research. You took notes. You probably sketched out an outline or a flow chart or a diagram. And now you’re sitting in front of a computer screen, trying to make the leap across the chasm between “I think I have something to say” and “I don’t know how to start.” The longer you stare at the screen, the more anxious you get. You may feel like Lord Loudon, a British general who was sent to colonial Pennsylvania to mediate a dispute between the governor and the assembly. He once took over two weeks to write an important letter to the governor. Each day the governor’s messenger waited at Loudon’s hotel, ready to carry the letter to Philadelphia, and each day the letter wasn’t ready. Benjamin Franklin asked the messenger how that could be, since he knew Loudon sat at his desk for hours every morning with his pen in his hand. The messenger replied, “Yes, but he is like St. George on the signs, always on horseback, and never rides on” (Franklin 1906, 172).
This is a common experience for all writers, not just academics. Even experienced writers speak of how hard it is to get words on the page that come something close to the ideas in your head. Susan Sontag described it as “winch[ing] the book out of your balky mind” (Sontag 2000). If you’ve looked for assistance with this issue in self-help guides for academic authors, you may have come away even more discouraged about your situation; almost all of those otherwise excellent resources assume that the problem is emotional. They talk a lot about anxiety and procrastination and fear. These of course are real issues for almost every writer and the suggestions these books offer for overcoming them are good.
But consider that the issue may be technical and mechanical, not emotional. You probably weren’t asked to write very much in secondary school: a recent survey of writing practices in middle school classrooms found that most students were required to generate less than two pages a week and that only about 7 percent of classroom time was devoted to writing instruction (The Hechinger Report 2014). If your experience of writing before you got to college was something like this, it’s likely that you don’t have mechanical skills for generating text hardwired in your brain. When you sit down to write, your short-term memory is overloaded. You need to focus on what you want to say and how to say it and at the same time you need to devote a lot of attention to the hard work of writing sentences. You may simply not have enough practice writing sentences.
If this is your experience, take heart. Two practices will help you transfer information about the mechanics of writing sentences to your long-term memory. It will be hardwired there and will support you as you begin to generate text.
Strategy 1: Practice Writing Sentences by Imitating Excellent Texts
Like a medieval monk, I laboriously copied out passages that I admired from books and articles.
–Camille Paglia 2016
Numerous expert writers have taught themselves to write well using this technique. You may have heard of some of them. Camille Paglia. Steven Pinker. Benjamin Franklin. When Paglia was in college, she filled notebook after notebook with passages she copied from texts she admired. She also made lists of the words she didn’t know and studied their meanings. She feels that this practice was crucial to her mastery of English (Toor 2016a). Steven Pinker did the same thing: he “lingered over passages of writing I enjoyed and tried to reverse-engineer them” (Toor 2016b, 26).
The most detailed description I’ve seen of this method comes from Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. At the time he devised his program for training himself to write, he was a teenager apprenticed to an older brother who owned a printing business. This was not Franklin’s first choice; he hankered after life on the sea. But his father had bound him to his brother for seven years, so young Ben used evenings and weekends to develop his mind. He discovered the Spectator, a British newspaper that specialized in satirical essays. Here’s his description of the methods he used to increase his writing skills:
About this time I met with an odd volume of the Spectator. It was the third. I had never before seen any of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to compleat the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them. But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them, which I thought I should have acquired before that time if I had gone on making verses; since the continual occasion for words of the same import, but of different length, to suit the measure, or of different sound for the rhyme, would have laid me under a constant necessity of searching for variety, and also have tended to fix that variety in my mind, and make me master of it. Therefore I took some of the tales and turned them into verse; and, after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again. I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and compleat the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method of the language, and this encouraged me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious. (Franklin 1906, 13–14)
His first step was to take purposeful notes, “short hints of the sentiment in each sentence.” He was no longer reading for pleasure; he was reading for content he needed for a specific purpose. Next, after a few days, he returned to his notes and attempted to write the essay in his own words. Then he compared what he wrote with the original and corrected his mistakes. But he found that his vocabulary was inadequate–“I wanted a stock of words”–so he rewrote the same piece in verse, which forced him to find words with certain sounds and numbers of syllables. After that, he turned his verse back into essay form, jotting down words and phrases again, sometimes scrambling “my collections of hints into confusion” to teach himself “method in the arrangement of thoughts.” He again checked what he had written against the original and corrected his mistakes. The finished product after all these rehearsals and exercises provided incentive to continue: he fancied that he “had been lucky enough to improve the method of the language” and felt encouraged that he might someday be a “tolerable English writer.”
Franklin’s self-directed course of instruction used several techniques that recent research supports. We now know that taking notes works best when we are focused on a purpose. Instead of transcribing large portions of text, it’s best to jot down only the ideas that will suit your purpose. This forces you to process knowledge through a particular intellectual filter, which means that you’re much more likely to remember it when you return to your notes (Piolat, Olive, and Kellogg 2005; Olive and Barbier 2017). Three people with three different writing goals will likely have three very different sets of notes about the same article. We also know that taking notes in longhand moves information to long-term memory more efficiently than typing (Mangen et al. 2015; Mueller and Oppenheimer 2014). When we type, it’s possible to simply record information without processing it. This doesn’t happen when we write by hand: because we write more slowly than we type, we do the cognitive work of synthesizing and selecting as we go along. That cognitive process puts information in categories, a crucial first step in organizing large amounts of data.
Rewriting a text that’s an example of excellence is a tried and true method. Some would call it old-fashioned and out of date, but it does several very useful things. Imitating well-written sentences transfers information about word order, parts of speech, vocabulary, and emphasis to the brain. It accustoms the writer to generating good sentences. Sentences that have subjects and verbs in the front rather than in the middle or at the end. Sentences that clearly say who did what. Sentences that are arranged to emphasize the point the author wanted to make. Sentences that don’t have extra words. Sentences written using a variety of structures. Sentences that likely were revised repeatedly until the author was satisfied. The practice of using sentences from well-written texts as models will teach you more than you realize at the time.
There’s one important difference between the practices Franklin, Paglia, and Pinker used and that much-hated pedagogical method of forcing students to copy sentences ten times each that was the hallmark of English classes until the 1970s. Each of these future expert writers chose texts they loved and admired. They were learning from writers they trusted and from texts that spoke to them. They were following their passion as they learned.
Franklin took the practice of imitating a text even further: he practiced writing texts for several different audiences. He deconstructed and reconstructed the essays in multiple ways, playing with language and learning new skills as he went. The fact that Franklin was sitting in a print shop as he was honing his skills doubtless reminded him that readers are customers: to reach his audiences, he needed to write in a way that pleased them and was easy for them to process. He was learning to think of his audience as he wrote. This is another element of skilled writing, one that many academics have trouble with (Pinker 2016a; Toor 2016b; Kellogg 2006).
Finally, Franklin’s practice of jumbling up his phrases and clues pushed him to think flexibly about organizing what he wanted to say. He became adept at reordering his thoughts and making several different structures work at both the essay level and the sentence level. He also became adept at using words and phrases to cue larger volumes of information as he wrote. These are all skills and practices that expert writers use.
The brilliance of Franklin’s method was that he did all of this practice without having to focus on content. The content was already present in the Spectator essay he was using as a model. His practice increased his skill in other aspects of writing: writing sentences, increasing vocabulary, organizing material. He was putting these skills into his long-term memory and through practice he was strengthening the areas of his brain that performed those tasks. As a result, when he wanted to generate text based on his own thoughts, his working memory wasn’t overloaded. He could focus on what he wanted to say without the additional burden of concentrating on how to say it. An arsenal of skills about the mechanics of how to say it was hardwired in his brain.
Strategy 2: Read as Much and as Often as You Can
Read, read, read. Read everything–trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.
–William Faulkner in Inge 1999, 80
Research shows that “more experienced readers make better writers” (Epting et al. 2013, 254). One reason is that reading exposes us to a larger number of language structures than oral speech does: reading increases our verbal ability because printed texts are a source of rich stimulation. In addition, reading increases domain knowledge, knowledge related to a particular topic that’s stored in long-term memory (Stankovich and Cunningham 1992). Domain knowledge is important to understanding and interpreting information, but it’s also important because depth of knowledge decreases the time we need to put new knowledge in the right context. Expert writers understand how to incorporate new information into a text more fluently than novice writers because their domain knowledge is broader and deeper (Bransford et al. 2000, chapter 2). Writers who read widely have a larger writing repertoire to choose from: they generate sentences more easily and have a larger variety of sentences to choose from. They find it easier to try different ways to express their thoughts and their vocabulary is larger than that of writers who read less.
You might compare the domain knowledge that comes from extensive reading to the mind palace Sherlock Holmes accesses in the BBC’s brilliant remake of the Arthur Conan Doyle tales. The concept goes back to Greek mythology (Zielinsky 2014). Holmes’s mind palace is a huge storehouse of long-term memories. What makes him exceptional is his superior ability to retrieve the right information at the right moment. It’s a wonderful metaphor for how long-term memory and working memory operate in partnership. Working memory sends a message to long-term memory that says “I need this particular type of information to solve a problem.” Using the cue from working memory, long-term memory retrieves the set of data that’s needed for the task at hand. The larger your mind palace, the easier it will be for you to see connections between the points you can make in your writing, organize your text fluently, and retrieve verbal information as you compose sentences. And reading is an excellent way to expand your mind palace.
All of the writers I’ve mentioned here agree on two key points. First, good writing takes practice, practice, practice. And second, a good way to learn is from imitating good writing. Your favorite authors can become your writing mentors. It’s not an intellectual exercise: you won’t transfer information to long-term memory by simply observing and admiring good writing. You have to actually write sentences. In your own words. Preferably by hand. Get up on your horse and ride on, my friend. You’ll get there.
Bransford, John D., Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, eds. 2000. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, exp. ed. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
Epting L. Kimberly, Evan M. Gallena, Stephanie A. Hicks, Elizabeth N. Palmer, and Traci Weisberg. 2013. “Read and Think before You Write: Prewriting Time and Level of Print Exposure as Factors in Writing.” Journal of Writing Research 4, no. 3: 239–259.
Franklin, Benjamin. 1906. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
The Hechinger Report. 2014. “3 Keys to Teaching Kids to Write.” U.S. News and World Report, October 27. Accessed March 30, 2018. https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2014/10/27/3-keys-to-teaching-kids-to-write.
Inge, M. Thomas, ed. 1999. Conversations with William Faulkner. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Kellogg, Ronald T. 1994. The Psychology of Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mangen, A. L. G. Anda, G. H. Oxborough, and K. Brønnick. “Handwriting versus Keyboard Writing: Effect on Word Recall.” Journal of Writing Research 7, no. 2 (2015): 227–247.
Mueller, Pam, and Daniel M. Oppenheimer. “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Laptop: Advantages of Longhand over Laptop Notetaking.” Psychological Science 25, no. 6 (2014): 1159–1168.
Olive, Thierry, and Marie-Laure Barbier. “Processing Time and Cognitive Effort of Longhand Note Taking When Reading and Summarizing a Structured or Linear Text.” Written Communication 34, no. 2 (2017): 224–246
Piolat, Annie, Thierry Olive, and Ronald T. Kellogg. “Cognitive Effort during Note Taking.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 19 (2005): 291–312.
Pinker, Steven. 2016. “Why Academics Stink at Writing.” Reprinted in “A Guide to Writing Good Academic Prose,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 2016: 5–10. Originally published in Chronicle of Higher Education, September 26, 2014.
Sontag, Susan. 2000. “Writers on Writing: Directions: Write, Read, Rewrite. Repeat Steps 2 and 3 as Needed.” New York Times, December 18. Accessed March 29, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2000/12/18/books/writers-on-writing-directions-write-read-rewrite-repeat-steps-2-and-3-as-needed.html.
Stankovich, Keith E., and Anne E. Cunningham. 1992. “Studying the Consequences of Literacy within a Literate Society: The Cognitive Correlates of Print Exposure.” Memory & Cognition 20, no. 1: 51–68.
Toor, Rachel. 2016a. “Scholars Talk Writing: Camille Paglia.” In “A Guide to Writing Good Academic Prose,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November: 28–29. Originally published in Chronicle of Higher Education, November 9, 2015.
Toor, Rachel. 2016b. “Scholars Talk Writing: Steven Pinker.” In “A Guide to Writing Good Academic Prose,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November: 25–27. Originally published in Chronicle of Higher Education, August 1, 2016.
Zielinsky, Sarah. 2014. “The Secrets of Sherlock’s Mind Palace.” Smithsonian.com, February 3. Accessed March 30, 2014. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/secrets-sherlocks-mind-palace-180949567/.
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