kitchen table math, the sequel: good writing

Thursday, September 6, 2012

good writing

All good writing consists of good sentences properly joined.

- Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg in Higher Lessons in English. A work on English grammar and composition, in which the science of the Language is made tributary to the art of expression. Revised edition, 1896.
I've been talking to Katharine Beals about writing instruction, grammar, and the sentence. (Here's Katharine's post on the erasure of the sentence).

At least since the 1980s (the 1980s again!) writing instruction has been about process, not sentences: process, voice, and the production of personal narratives and opinion pieces. Pick up nearly any college composition textbook and you will find in its pages a slew of sample student essays all written in the first person, with discussion of the sentence pushed to the back of the book. There you will find "sentence fragments" and "run ons" and "misplaced modifiers" bundled together in a chunk of pages devoted to grammar and punctuation. The sentence, in today's writing class, is mostly a source of error.

Of course, "process writing" seemed wrong to me from the get-go. I myself never, ever 'free-write,' and since I actually am a writer, I feel I'm on solid ground drawing the conclusion that 'free-writing' is a waste of instructional time.

But I became more convinced that the process approach is misguided after working with Kerrigan's X-1-2-3 method, which gives novice writers a method of building an essay on a stack of sentences with identical subjects and identical sentence structure (Subject-Verb-Object or Subject-Verb-Complement). e.g.:
X Power corrupts.
1 It corrupts the weak.
2 It corrupts the strong.
3 It corrupts all the relations between the two.
By the time I returned to the classroom to teach freshman writing, I had begun to feel that the sentence is key. Not just because sentences -- not words -- are the raw material of writing, but because the sentence is the essay in some sense. The essay makes an argument, and a sentence is an argument.

The sentence is an essay in miniature.

and see:
Cost of College on William J. Kerrigan's X-1-2-3 method


SATVerbalTutor. said...


You know, it's interesting: when I first started reading this post, my initial thought was that your argument seemed to be exactly of the opposite of the argument in the piece from which I sent you the "concession" example (his argument: forget the sentence in and of itself), but then I realized you were actually saying the same thing: a sentence is important because it plays a role in a larger piece. It has a point to convey, and if all the little, individual sentences that comprise a larger piece of writing don't each make their mini internal point clearly, the piece as a whole won't make its point clearly either. That's why jumbled sentences are such as problem (beyond the obvious reasons): they indicate a lack of ability to think clearly and precisely at the simplest level. If you can't create clear relationships between ideas at the micro level, you certainly can't do so at the macro level either.

Katharine Beals said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Katharine Beals said...

There's a cognitive perspective on why sentences are essential: they correspond to the smallest unit of thought (i.e., propositional thought). Arguably no thought is smaller than a sentence: thoughts are always about something (topic/subject) and express some observation/conjecture/attitude about that something (comment/predicate).