Monday, August 29, 2011

The Ebb and Flow of Sentence Structure

Recently I listened to an excerpt from someone’s novel, and after mulling the piece over in my mind, I finally figured out what disturbed me about it. Her sentences all sounded the same.

The ebb and flow of sentence structure is key to good writing. Like the waves of the sea, using varied sentence lengths provides the current that undulates within a paragraph, moving the reader upward with the flow then ebbing to emphasize and to clarify.

Three basic kinds of sentences exist: simple, compound, and complex. Sentences consist of independent and dependent clauses—sentence fragments that contain subjects and those that do not. It is the creative usage and variety of these clauses that either cause our words to succeed or fail.

Simple sentence structure uses independent clauses that can stand alone as a sentence, such as: The dog chased the cat. Sometimes a short sentence is sufficient. Compound sentences use two or more independent clauses. The dog chased the cat, and the cat ran up a tree. This format extends the flow of our words and provides more interest. Complex sentence structure consists of one or more dependent clauses and at least one independent clause. The dog chased the cat, and though the dog’s snapping jowls ripped one of the feline’s nine lives to shreds, the cat ran up the tree to perch safely on the highest branch. Be careful to punctuate correctly within this format. Break the sentence into smaller segments if you aren’t sure where to place the commas.

English teachers have lectured and pointed their knotty fingers at us when we’ve used dependent clauses by themselves, threatening to mark “sentence fragment” on our papers with their accursed red pens. For the most part I agree with them. Yet isn’t it fun to break the rules? We would do well to understand the difference between dependent clauses and independent clauses. Knowing the rules helps us to produce a product worth reading. But sometimes we can use a wayward sentence or two with purpose. For emphasis. Or special effect. Or in dialogue. It’s the flotsam that puts punch into our writing. Just use them sparingly. And leave them out of formal writing.

I can’t tell you how to write. However, I guarantee if you use a variety of well-crafted sentence lengths, your work will sweep your reader into the stream of your words and surge them forward to a satisfactory ending.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Going for Blood

When I entered college, several of my Sophomore friends counseled me to avoid the English teacher Mrs. Krafchick. Their warnings were often accompanied with the words, “She’s a tough grader.” I took care to request specific classes during registration, especially in English, because I wanted to sidestep an instructor that would make my life miserable.

You guessed it.

When I attended orientation, there on my class schedule, in all capital letters, the name KRAFCHICK jeered up at me. My spirit sagged. I hoped I could switch out of her class before the start of school, though fate would have her own way. I sat low man on the totem pole, one of many in a banner year of incoming freshman, and the school made rearranging classes near impossible. I gulped at the cruel joke destiny had played on me, and prepared to face my fears.

I entered Mrs. Krafchick’s classroom that first time with palms sweating and heart racing. She appeared younger than I had imagined, though her face drew to a pinch and her attitude boomed with authority. And because she had written the classroom textbook, I feared she would hold the book over our heads as a standard—the last word in the realm of the all-knowing lady at the front.

I landed a “D” on my first writing assignment, a hard dose to take, since I was an “A” and “B” student. My second attempt earned little better—a “C-”. Each paper foretold the dismal report card that was sure to arrive in my mailbox by the end of the quarter. On the day I dropped out, half-way through the term, I had worked myself all the way up to a “B+”. I stood outside her classroom, withdrawal notice in hand, waiting to get her signature as soon as the class dismissed. Imagine my astonishment when I heard through the door Mrs. Krafchick say my name and talk about the wonderful paper I had written. I hadn’t expected that. I wanted to get in and get out with my completed signature sheet and retreat to my home to plan my next life adventure.

I remember the disappointment that flicked in Mrs. Krafchick’s eyes when I presented the withdrawal slip and my feeble explanation of why I wanted to give up. She said nothing but handed me my paper with “B+” marked in bold letters at the top of the page. I left with the stigma of that humiliation. It was almost as if she had said, “I don’t understand why you’re leaving. You had such promise.” Her words, though imagined, have stuck with me some thirty plus years later.

I learned more than just how to write from Mrs. Krafchick. She taught me that to write clean copy, free of frilly, garbage can words (her words, not mine) required struggle—editing, shaping, word-upon-line-upon-paragraph warfare. If I wanted to write with clarity, I had to put in the effort, even if the process drew blood.

Had I stayed in that English class, I know I would have won a few more battles with my native language. I’ve had to learn to write by trial and error and rejection over the years, a skirmish I could have cut short with a bit more courage in the war of words. But I am grateful for the tidbits of wisdom I gleaned from her. I’ve filed them away somewhere inside my aging brain. They stand at the ready, popping up from time to time in hand-to-hand combat when I’m tempted to pad my sentences or use words like “utilize”. At times I lose the conflict, but because of my brief training with Mrs. Kraftchick, the fight has made all the difference.