And in this particular class (meeting on Mondays from 5 to 9 p.m.) let’s pretend we’re focusing on The Sentence. That’s right. I’m in graduate school and I’m spending 8 weeks just studying the sentence. This information either thrills you or makes you feel very, very sleepy.
If it makes you feel sleepy, your work here is done. Thanks for the click-through but you should feel no pressure to stay for the rest of this post!
If it thrills you, then keep reading! I thought you might be interested in how my submitted sentence for the week changed during workshop.
Here’s the scene: you can sit beside me around the big conference-style table in our classroom/computer lab. My classmates have not given permission for me to release their names or likenesses here, but I can let you know they are generous, funny, and smart. You’d like them.
Our professor projects the sentence onto the big screen in the front of the room and reads it out loud. Here’s mine (from a personal essay I’m working on):
There were two unexpected results from my new reading habits: first, I got hooked on the stories, and, second, I realized I had unintentionally found the long-hidden portal into conversations with boys.
As my professor said, “It’s fine, isn’t it? Gets the job done. But what can we do? What options do we have?” And then we spent probably 15 minutes discussing this sentence, crossing out words and putting them back again, rearranging the order of the elements, anything to find a clearer way to say what I was trying to say. Here’s what we came up with:
My new reading habits produced unexpected results: first, I got hooked on the stories, and, second, I found the long-hidden portal into conversations with boys.
What do you notice? It’s shorter for one thing. We cut out redundant words: you don’t need “realized … unintentionally” when you already have “unexpected.” Also, “There were” or any version of the to be verbs make boring beginnings to sentences. They take up space, really. So we cut that also. Now the sentence gets right to business.
Some of the sentences we worked on didn’t get shorter, we added to them instead. Maybe there was room for description (my grandmother’s blue and white gingham apron vs. my apron) or specificity (the tall pines vs. the trees).
It was a fun exercise and made me think about how much time could really be spent on a piece of writing in revision. As a poet, this exercise is perfect because a good poem is often just a few sentences put together. Each word in a poem has to do a lot of work. I’m used to the sentence-by-sentence game with a poem, but I realized that it works for prose as well.
If you want to try it, start by selecting three or so of your own sentences (from different works) and just tear them apart. Don’t be afraid to try things. We found that if we dismissed ideas too quickly we ended up without many changes. Often it wasn’t the first idea that worked, but we had to see that idea before we landed on the best idea. (Note: I think this might be best – to start with, at least – as a group exercise. I know I’m not as critical of my own work as I am of someone else’s. And I seemed to have NO ideas for how to change my sentence until I heard other people begin to talk about where they saw room for change.)
Don’t think of it as fixing your sentences. Because that will make you skip right over sentences that are fine now. Think of it as discovering new possibilities in your sentences. You may not need to correct a mistake; you may just want to find out what else you can do. It’s a fun little game.
See you next week! Don’t be late.