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    Sentences on the Runway

    Wednesday, November 04, 2009

    If sentences were in a fashion show, here's what you might see: Some sentences might appear perky and preppie and ready for action, others might flow on and on in exotic layers of meaning, still others might hit you right between the eyes with their boldness or sneak up on you because of their understated elements.

    The Modeling Process
    To improve your own sentence-writing skills, try imitating sentences that seem especially fashionable or well made. This process is sometimes called modeling. Here's how to get started:

    • Keep a list of well-made sentences that you come across in your reading. To work on your business writing, you may want to focus on sentences from nonfiction articles and texts.
    • Analyze each sentence so you know how it is put together (dare I say, "attired"). Read it out loud. Notice word endings (-ing, -ed, etc.), pay attention to the use of prepositions (to, by, over, etc.) and articles (a, an the), and look for parts set off by commas.
    • Then write your own versions of these sentences by mimicking them part by part. Try to use the same word endings, prepositions, and articles, but supply your own nouns and verbs. (Your imitation does not have to be exact.)
    • Set aside specific times each week to practice sentence modeling, perhaps during a couple of morning or afternoon breaks. The more you practice, the more your own sentences will be in style.

    Modeling in Action
    Here's a short well-made sentence from The Headmaster by John McPhee. (The two "no phrases" give the sentence a pleasing rhythm.)

    "He had no plan and no theory, but he proved himself to be an educator by intuition."

    Now here's my close, but not exact imitation:

    She's had limited time and limited resources, yet she's forced herself to become a leader by pure stubbornness.

    This next sentence comes from Words Fail Me by Patricia T. O'Conner. (The information after the comma adds an interesting layer of meaning.)

    "The fearful writer pictures the audience as a panel of Olympic judges, all holding up cards with 3's and 4's instead of 10's.

    And here's my imitation:

    The confident chef imagines diners as a table of eager gourmands, all savoring each dish with oohs and ahs instead of ughs.

    Now You Try
    Consider practicing the modeling process with any or all of the following well-made sentences. (They get progressively more challenging.) Be sure to share your results with a colleague.

    1. "The town sits there crazily, half on the green hills and half on the delta."
          - from Good Old Boy by Willie Morris
    2. "Different nurses bring in newborns, one after another, and line them down the counter to the sink's left."
          - from For the Time Being by Annie Dillard
    3. "It was in fact the tiniest of country villages, containing probably no more than 350 inhabitants, and it has grown no larger to this day."
          - from America by Bruce Catton

    A Final Thought: Sentence modeling is one activity among many that will help you improve your writing skills. It specifically makes you aware of the structures of stylistic sentences - structures that might make their way into your own writing, business or otherwise.