Writing Ideas – Teaching the Empathy of a Long Sentence

It is hard to teach students when and how to use a long sentence, not least to punctuate it carefully [yes, ‘correctly’, but hearing the shifts and turns in the rhythm is in many ways the best way to achieve both, so by ‘carefully’ I am suggesting an intuitive, if informed by practice, approach rather than the mechanics of a learned accuracy]. Good writing benefits from good sentence variety – written to again emulate shifts and turns and changing emotions and so on in the meaning and dramatic/visual/aural purpose – but we also know as teachers that ‘sentence variety’ is a big one in assessment criteria, especially at GCSE.

The worst way to teach this is in order to hit that assessment criteria. Easy to say; sometimes hard to avoid. Hard if you feel bludgeoned by expectation in target-setting and have an inkling that hitting that assessment criteria – no matter how mechanical – is one step closer to a student ‘improving’ their potential to get the best grade possible in their Writing.

I saw plenty of this manufactured writing when I examined a GCSE Writing component for two years [as well as plenty of superb writing, let’s be clear!]. This assembly-line writing also included the deathly three-adjectives-in-a-sentence proliferation – as if this is the ‘magic three’ rather than a naive example of over-writing – and that other composition coffin-carrier, the endemic use of metaphor and simile: at least one in every other sentence.

I might exaggerate a little. But not that much.

The best way to teach the use of a long sentence isn’t something I can explain definitively. Why? Because good writing is hard to do and hard to teach. I’m sure we all know that one of the most effective guides to exemplify overall good writing, but also in this case the use of sentence variety and in particular the long sentence, is reading good writing. The other is practice. So how do we find engaging ways to practice?

A little pitch: in the book I have co-authored Writing Workshops [see here], one of the units looks at the writing of Charles Dickens from Dombey and Son. With the caveat that one isn’t suggesting we try and write like Dickens did in the mid-1800s, by reading and discussing how he brilliantly mimics the relentless movement of a train, we are ‘hearing’ how he uses long flowing sentences to achieve this, and by some natural osmosis, the collaborative talk of students and reading aloud, and more explicit teaching/doing, we begin to appreciate how his use of punctuation allows this to happen.

I tried to match but also ‘counter’ Dickens’ excellence at such writing through the use of complex sentences with a contemporary example from Cormac McCarthy who also writes glorious long sentences but does so in the [sweeping statement alert] American tradition of using compound sentences, the connective ‘and’ being the magical vehicle for this other journey. But McCarthy doesn’t allow his writing to be used for such a purpose!

So – finally – here’s an idea, but it is primarily a creative writing idea: this wonderful poem by Billy Collins is written as one long sentence. The poem describes the fall of the Elk River, and does so through the mimesis of sentence flow and, of course, the structure of the poem itself. Whilst the latter would seem impossible to work as prose, that is actually just a visual cheat because although the enjambment of the poetic form allows the ‘sentences’ to fall from one line to the next and thus describe the river’s journey to the sea, it is both the punctuation and conjunctions that in fact create the shifts and turns and visual purpose and effect of the whole piece.

Read the poem first

Elk River Falls

is where the Elk River falls
from a rocky and considerable height,
turning pale with trepidation at the lip
(it seemed from where I stood below)
before it is unbuckled from itself
and plummets, shredded, through the air
into the shadows of a frigid pool,
so calm around the edges, a place
for water to recover from the shock
of falling apart and coming back together
before it picks up its song again,
goes sliding around the massive rocks
and past some islands overgrown with weeds
then flattens out and slips around a bend
and continues on its winding course,
according to this camper’s guide,
then joins the Clearwater at its northern fork,
which must in time find the sea
where this and every other stream
mistakes the monster for itself,
sings its name one final time
then feels the sudden sting of salt.

What a great poem! If I was reading/teaching this, I would obviously read aloud again.

Now here is the proof in the sentence pudding:

is where the Elk River falls from a rocky and considerable height, turning pale with trepidation at the lip (it seemed from where I stood below) before it is unbuckled from itself and plummets, shredded, through the air into the shadows of a frigid pool, so calm around the edges, a place for water to recover from the shock of falling apart and coming back together before it picks up its song again, goes sliding around the massive rocks and past some islands overgrown with weeds then flattens out and slips around a bend and continues on its winding course, according to this camper’s guide, then joins the Clearwater at its northern fork, which must in time find the sea where this and every other stream mistakes the monster for itself, sings its name one final time then feels the sudden sting of salt.

In one important and definitive sense this destroys the purpose and effect of it being a poem. However, in another, I think it also illustrates how it is entirely the rhythms of this one long sentence – punctuated perfectly, conjunctions providing connection and impetus – that generate the actual visual emulation.

Enough of this. Speaking of long sentences, this exposition is pretty damn long! So how to use this poem in the classroom?

I won’t produce a worksheet here [but maybe I should have a go later…] and will simply suggest the poem could be used initially as a model for prompting a copycat creative writing response.

Students can take a similar theme, or expand and/or change

• the fall [journey] of a river
• a waterfall
• the ocean’s waves [what they ‘encounter’ on the way: boats, islands, debris, beach…]
• a storm [researching the meteorology of this]
• movement/motion of a train [thinking of the Writing Workshop unit on this]
• any other mode of transport
• a bird in flight [crossing various terrain]
• a plane [!]
• anything similar….

For any of the above, I would encourage the hard work of researching and/or making notes about the content that will form the detail of the long sentence, or as a differentiated option, a number of long sentences. Collecting and collating the information will obviously help in then shaping this into the sentence flow.

I have always believed in and put into practice the principle of copycatting to encourage creative writing. Students benefit greatly from a model to literally copy or adapt and use as a varying guide.

Revisit Collins’ poem and work though how the enjambment – in the first instance – tends to create most of the rhythmic shifts in what is actually being described as the river’s falling shifts. The punctuation used can then be mapped against this, though at times it isn’t a punctuation mark but a conjunction/connective like ‘and’, ‘which’, ‘where’, ‘before’… so there is no single pattern to how Collins keeps his long sentence flowing [and I apologise for ‘mapped’ because that has connotations of some more prescriptive type of teaching and learning but I’ll leave it in for the hopeful irony.].

And did you notice that final parenthesis? Collins only uses one in his poem, and I find I use this quite a lot in my own writing, especially across long sentences [though I often prefer the use of the dash to brackets].

Couldn’t resist.

Once students have written their copycat poems, you could move on to them re-presenting this as a prose piece, preserving the punctuation and so on – or, using the prose ‘conversion’ to highlight the further need for careful punctuation. Word-processing and formatting will obviously make this whole process easier.

I quite like the creative writing idea and have some reservation about appropriating it for another purpose, but the overall intention is to enjoy reading good writing and improve our own writing skills: if a poem to read and copycat aids that intention, then all is well in the world of teaching Writing, certainly far better than the illness of hammering on the dead-heads of assessment objectives.

MF 20.3.15

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4 thoughts on “Writing Ideas – Teaching the Empathy of a Long Sentence

  1. Pingback: Hamburger Sentence | mikeandenglish

  2. Pingback: Empathising with a sentence: how to write a long sentence | mikeandenglish

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