How to Write a Sentence: Helping Students be Better Writers

Woman sitting at computer

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Melody Pickle, PhD, Kaplan University Writing Center Specialist

How do we helps students be better writers?

Helping them write clear sentences is one place to start.  In order to be successful, students need to know how to take their thoughts and compose logical, well-formed sentences.

Stanley Fish (2011) in How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One asks this:

“What is it that we do when we make a sentence out of a random collection of words?” (p. 16-17).

This is a good question.  Think about it for a minute. . .

No, really . . . think about it.

What are we doing with the symbols or letters that make words . . .that then make meaning?

When we ask students to write, we ask them to take their current ideas and combine them with new ideas to make meaning.  This is no small task.

For a moment, let’s set aside words like grammar, syntax, and adverbs and talk about putting words together in meaningful ways.

We make meaning through words by putting words together in relationships.  (I have even been known to talk about sentences holding hands when explaining relationships to students.  Fish (2011) jokes about this in his book as well.)

One way to improve writing is to practice writing good sentences.  Start with looking at a well-formed sentence and then copy the form.

Here is one example:

When I go to the store, I always get bird food.

or

After walking the dog, I get coffee.

While these are not exciting or pithy in content, they are clearly written.

Here is another form:

There are many books to read; however, only two of these books are really helpful.

or

There are kites flying in the air; however, the dying wind will bring them down.

This may seem basic, but it is important.  

When learning to write in a particular discipline, it helps to practice sentence forms that are commonly used in that area of study.  To determine what sentence forms are used in a specific discipline, it is useful to read professional journals and publications from that field.   It is also helpful to remember that citation style determines how prose in a particular discipline is written, which is another good reason to practice discipline specific writing.

Sometimes, sentences are more about form than content.  Here is what I mean.  The form of the sentence determines how the words will be experienced (or read) on the page.   For example, the order of words determines what is emphasized and what is de-emphasized.  Or, a longer sentence may create a certain feel or cadence to the writing that a shorter sentence does not.  Practicing a variety of sentence forms is useful writing preparation.  Modeling appropriate sentence forms for students is also helpful and potentially fun.

hand writing on paper

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Activity

Ask students to find a sentence or two they really like.  Share the sentence(s) with the class and then have them attempt to articulate why they like this sentence.

Why does this sentence stand out?

What about the words and the relationship or connection between the words make this sentence better than another one?

What does the order of words have to do with it?

What does the punctuation have to do with it?

How would the sentence be different if you used different words or

used the same words in a different order? Or added a few words?

Question marks

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Question

What is one of your favorite sentences and why? 

Here is one of mine:

“There is no one but us.” Annie Dillard – Holy the Firm

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