Rethinking Writing Instruction

A friendly dispute with comp teacher Todd Anderson about sentence length

Mr. Maguire,

One of my more significant struggles (besides convincing students that to be good writers, they have to read good writing)–a struggle that is also contrary to one of your “Five Rules”–is cultivating in students the ability to compose beyond the simple and compound sentence structures.

Compounding the difficulty is that many do not take the time to study and memorize the various conjunctions used in complex sentences that, when practiced consistently, opens more relationships among ideas that students can establish. (I especially stress the importance of coherence in my courses.)

I understand the desire for more straightforward, concise sentences, but many of my students throughout the years have expressed similar complaints about their sentence skills:  that their sentences are “too boring,” or “too choppy,” or, what I find to be the comment with the greatest brevity, that their sentence skills just plain “suck.”  

Any advice on how to negotiate this common impasse of mine would be appreciated, too! That would be my “magic wand” wish.  Todd Anderson  

I answered:      Well, I teach writing somewhat differently and I’ll explain it and it will have some bearing on your compound-complex sentence worry.  I certainly appreciate your kind words about the exercises and am glad you call them “wonderful supplements.”     

In my course, almost every assignment is subject to being discussed in class.  So if they are doing a 500-word essay on some topic, and they turn it in, I’ll Xerox maybe three of the papers and we will discuss each paper and its readability. I write very little private feedback in the margins of papers. I don’t want students people-pleasing me the teacher–I want students to think about the average reader as their audience. And that means their peers are a reasonable jury, at least on the subject of clarity and interest.     

Although too many short sentences in a row can be choppy, I don’t warn them off that. If they write really choppy prose, their own ears will tell them and then they’ll have to fix things.     

I teach balance. The average sentence should be 15-17 words, but the writing should include medium, short and very short sentences. If you look in the book and read the last student essay, called “If Love Closes,” you will see a vivid and heartfelt argument that is quite moving. The sentences are all short, but it doesn’t matter to me, because the writer’s ideas are clear and vivid. I would never counsel students to write in that style all the time, but I’m willing to accept it, because it’s so clear.  If you read “Going Home,” earlier in the book, you’ll see a more balanced pattern of long, medium and short. They’re both beautiful papers.     

I think there is nothing inherently good in a long sentence, at least in terms of communication. Sentence length is something students must have conscious control over, but I do not give brownie points or any other kind of points for the construction of a 40- or 50-word sentence. A long sentence (if it’s clear) is just a kind of sentence, the way an intense patch of blue in a painting is just a color. If I were teaching painting, I wouldn’t say “Always include two patches of blue.” I don’t think long sentences communicate more clearly than short ones. And in fact, all other things being equal, were we ranking the value of sentences, I’d argue for the short.  Students need to be given permission to write short for the sake of clarity. If they produce choppy work, I’ll say, combine those three short sentences into something longer–just do it by ear.    

When students get more involved in their arguments, more passionate about what they are trying to get said, they will write longer and more rhythmic sentences naturally. And when students read each other’s work they pick up on what works, and if Suzy Brown has a beautiful long sentence that works, they may well imitate it in a later paper. The key thing is total clarity. When long sentences are good and clear, they’ll have a powerful effect on the reader, and the students in the classroom will note that. Sometimes they’ll say, “That long sentence was neat,” but more often they’re saying,  “That short sentence was great.”     

Good topic to talk about. Thanks for your candid question.


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John G. Maguire
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