“Writing is learned by imitation. If anyone asked me how I learned to write, I’d say I learned by reading the men and women who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and trying to figure out how they did it.”
—William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well
Many of America’s best writers—from Mark Twain on—write in a relaxed, somewhat informal style. This style is characterized by four special types of sentences.
- A loose sentence expresses the main idea near the beginning and adds explanatory details as needed.
“Wil nodded to himself and slipped away, softly as a mouse, toward the back of the house where tourists were never taken.”
—from “A Room Full of Leaves” by Joan Aiken
- A balanced sentence includes two or more parts equal in structure, which means that the parts are parallel.
“He goes out onto his baseball field, spins around second base, and looks back at the academy.”
—from The Headmaster by John McPhee
- A periodic sentence holds back the most important idea until the end.
“There, hidden in a maze of axles, wheels and springs, it was difficult for policemen or trainmen to find him.”
—from “Hoboing” by William Z. Foster
- A cumulative sentence adds life to the main clause by including modifiers before it, after it, or in the middle of it.
“All that winter in the new house, Raymond sat around talking about becoming a big-time farmer, raising lots of kids, making plenty of money, and being his own man.”
—from Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
Writers usually work rather unscientifically. They don’t say to themselves, “It’s time to use a loose sentence or a periodic sentence or whatever.” They simply go with what feels right in the heat of writing. It’s another matter, of course, when they revise. Then they will rewrite certain ideas many times until they have the right sound and flow.
Guidelines for Modeling
Your students can learn a lot about writing by studying the sentences and passages of some of their favorite authors. When they come across sentences that they really like, they should practice writing sentences of their own that follow the author’s pattern. This process is sometimes called modeling. Share the following guidelines with your students if you’re interested in trying this activity.
- Find a sentence or short passage that you would like to use as a model. (You’re looking for loose sentences, periodic sentences, and so on.)
- Copy it in your writing notebook.
- Think of a subject for your practice writing.
- Follow the pattern of the example as you write about your own subject. (You do not have to follow the pattern exactly.)
- Build each sentence one small part at a time.
- Share the results with a classmate.
- Find other sentences or passages to use as models.
Here is a smooth-reading sentence from the novel A Solitary Blue by Cynthia Voight. This is an example loose sentence.
“Jeff couldn’t see the musician clearly, just a figure on a chair on the stage, holding what looked like a misshapen guitar.”
Here is a student’s sentence modeled after Voight’s:
“Larisa couldn’t identify the person immediately, just a shadow in the dark alley behind the store, carrying what appeared to be a heavy box.”
Additional Modeling Ideas
- Have your students rewrite one of their stories (or a section of it) to resemble the style of one of their favorite authors.
- Have the students exchange favorite sentences for additional modeling practice.
- Have them search through their own writing for sentences they really like. Then have them rewrite these sentences in different ways.
Implementation: You can make sentence modeling an independent study, of sorts, for those students who seem really interested in it. Or you could make it a warm-up activity for the entire class by supplying daily sentences for students to use as models. Then again, you could develop a complete modeling unit. No matter how you approach it, sentence modeling will help students learn about the craft of writing from the masters.