Online Writing Class 1

If you are a writer interested in strengthening new muscles, you’ll find here brief grammar and writing exercises that I use with my students at Harvard University, with the most recent ones at the top. They will correspond to the chapters of Sin and Syntax, so pick up a copy to take full advantage of this self-guided online writing class. Below is the complete curriculum for one semester. If you are a teacher interested in using Sin and Syntax in classes, email me (see the Contact link below, left), and I will add you to my “Miss Thistlebottom? NOT!” mailing list. You’ll get suggestions on how to craft meaningful grammar and writing exercises, and how to work with the ones here.

Week Sixteen: Let’s Get Quizzical (A whopping review) Read: All chapters from the Words and Sentences sections of Sin and Syntax Do/PART ONE: As a way of testing your grasp of the parts of speech (N, P, V, Adj, Adv, Pr, C, I), parse the following paragraph from the opening of Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll: Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and of having nothing to do. Once or twice she had peeped into the book that her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it. The hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid, but she was considering whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies. Suddenly, a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her. There was nothing so very remarkable in that. Do/PART TWO: As a way of testing your grasp of phrases and clauses, identify each of the following phrases (underlined) and clauses [in square brackets]—i.e., say what kind of phrase (appositive, gerund, etc.) or clause (subordinate, relative, independent) it is: Alice did not think that it was so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!' [When she thought it over afterwards,] it occurred to her [that she ought to have wondered at this,] [but at the time it all seemed quite natural.] [But when the Rabbit took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket and looked at it and then hurried on,] [Alice started to her feet.] It flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket or a watch to take out of it. Burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it and was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge. In another moment, down went Alice after it, never once considering [how in the world she was to get out again.] [Hint: that last one is a doozy; “considering” kicks off a phrase; “in the world” is another phrase; “how she was to get out again” is a clause.] Write: Joan Didion once wrote: “Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power.” Write a paragraph or two responding to Didion's quote and reflecting on when and how in your life you have picked up grammar (or not) and whether your attitude has changed after taking this online crash-course.

Week Fifteen: Those @#!%* Commas, and Other Squirrelly Parts of Punctuation Read: A Punctuation Primer and Punctuation Pet Peeves Do: Take a passage by one of your favorite writers—one that you almost know by heart. Type it out without any of the punctuation marks. Put it aside for a day or two. Come back to it and reinsert the punctuation, trying to sense the pauses and the full-stops, the flow of ideas and the tangents. Compare it with the original. Write: Take a passage of your own writing and play around in the punctuation sandbox. Take some short sentences and weave them together using commas (with the obligatory coordinate conjunctions) and semicolons. Take some long sentences and change the flow of the ideas using semicolons and colons. Jam asides into sentences using dashes and parentheses.

Weak Fourteen: Controlling Clauses, Sliding In and Out of Sentences Read: Sin and Syntax, pp. 183-195: Sentence Variety Do: Read the description of Papa Correa on page 186 (two paragraphs of which are reproduced below) and label sentence each sentence: Is it Simple? Compound? Complex? Compound-Complex? Keep an eye out, also, for phrases. “By the time we knew Papa, his body was hinged at the waist and starting to wither. He always wore baggy plantation khakis, and a white cotton shirt. I never saw him in a pair of shoes. Instead, he wore leather thongs that crossed over his toes, which bunched together like overgrown tree roots. His legs had weakened: he used a walker to move around the house and the yard. The walker kept his upper body strong. He was barrel-chested, with thick hairy arms and stubby fingers. One of his fingers was a stump, as a result of an accident with a saw. Stump or no, he had a gentle touch. “Despite his difficulty walking, Papa was a terrific gardener. Beds of flowers and ferns surrounded the house, but Papa spent even more time caring for countless potted plants, on several raised wooden platforms in the backyard. There, in old coffee tins, he sprouted trees and raised vegetables. He was forever sending us home with avocadoes and bananas. Write: Last week you reflected upon mentors or personalities who have been a great influence on your life. Take one of those people and write a character sketch of that person (much like the character sketch of Papa Correa). In your first draft, don’t think about the sentences, per se. Just try to write evocatively about the person. In the next draft, look carefully at the sentences. Try to mix long and short, complex and simple. Look for the opportunity to use relative or subordinate conjunctions.

Week Thirteen: The Hard Stuff: It’s All Relative (Clauses) Read: Sin and Syntax, pp. 169-182: Clauses (again) Grapple: A relative clause is a dependent clause that (usually) modifies another word. It allows us to give additional information about something without starting another sentence. This added information can be either essential (defining), or nonessential (nondefining). Relative clauses must contain a subject and predicate (otherwise, they wouldn’t be clauses). They are introduced by either:
  • a relative pronoun (who, whom, whose, which, that, whoever, whomever, whosever, whichever) or
  • a relative adverb (when, where, why).
Do: Identify the relative clauses in the following sentences:
  • I want whichever flavor you want.
  • No attempt was made to hide the extension cords, which swung above the seats like nooses.
  • Do you speak Spanish, which is a language increasingly helpful to know?
  • David, whom we saw yesterday in Hamlet, is a superb actor.
  • I always listen when you tell me that you love me.
  • “And your speeches are long,” said Matthew Freud, the public-relations man, who is married to Elisabeth Murdoch, Rupert’s daughter. (modified, from a New Yorker Talk of the Town piece)
  • “I’d like to thank everybody who ever punched or kissed me in my life. And everybody whom I ever punched or kissed.” (John Patrick Shanley, slightly corrected, in his speech accepting an Oscar for the screenplay of Moonstruck)
  • “At the tea stall Mr. and Mrs. Das bickered about who should take Tina to the toilet.” (from “Interpreter of Maladies,” by Jhumpa Lahiri)
Write: Reflect upon the mentors or personalities that have been a great influence in your life. Start by writing a few short sentences on each person, then try to meld some of the ideas together by using relative clauses. (Example: Robert Torrey, who was like a surrogate father to me, inspired me to work hard. He urged me to go to Princeton, which was his alma mater.) Week Twelve: Applause, Applause: The Subordinate Clause Read: Sin and Syntax, pp. 169-182: Clauses Do: Find two articles on the exact same news event (a press conference, for example, or a speech by the president), one from the AP or Reuters, and one from the New York Times. In the case of the AP/Reuters version, look for an article that relies on coordinate conjunctions to join independent clauses. In the case of the New York Times version, look for one that relies on subordinate conjunctions. (If you’d like an example, see the two passages on Colin Powell in Sin and Syntax on page 175 and 176.) Analyze the difference between the sentences, the paragraphs, the stories. Write: Using stream of consciousness, write a few sentence about how your personality reflects that of your parents or your grandparents. After you’ve finished, rewrite the paragraph using subordinate conjunctions (although, because, despite, if, since, while, etc.) to join various sentences. The subordinate conjunctions should build some complexity into the paragraph by emphasizing paradoxes or, perhaps, cause-effect relationships.

Week Eleven: Using Phrases to Turn Phrases

Read: Sin and Syntax, “Phrases and Clauses,” pp. 169-182

Do: Take a few paragraphs of a piece of writing you admire and see if you can find examples of these phrases: appositive, prepositional, participial, gerund, infinitive, absolute. If you have access to The New Yorker’s Digital Edition, try doing this with the first two pages of Birkhard Bilger’s “The Power of Hair” (The New Yorker, January 9, 2006, p 43). I found everything but an absolute phrase in there.

Write: Take the paragraph you wrote last week, describing your first five minutes of a day–your waking moments. When you wrote naturally in a stream of consciousness, did you use phrases? Which kind? Rewrite the paragraph, first using only simple sentences and then adding in phrases or combining the simple sentences by using phrases. Notice the music of your prose: the way the simple sentences establish a staccato beat, and the way that phrases make the writing more lyrical.

Week Ten: ‘Tis the Gift: The Four Simple Sentence Patterns

Read: Sin and Syntax, pp. 154-167: Simple Sentences

Do: Identify the sentence patterns in each of Charlotte Bronte's sentences, Sin and Syntax pages 159-160. (Pretend the semicolons are periods.) This one is especially tricky: “The leaves grow sere.” Do you see that “sere” is a complement, or predicate adjective? That means that “grow” in this sentence is static, not dynamic. Write: Take five or ten minutes to write a paragraph describing your first five minutes today--your waking moments. Write freely, almost using stream of consciousness. Once you’ve written your paragraph, analyze your sentences. Did you use simple sentences, or did your thoughts tend to tumble out in a sequence of clauses?

Week Nine: Sentences, oh, Sentences—Telling a story in few words

Read: Sin and Syntax, pp. 129-153: Sentences and The Subject, The Predicate

Do: Find the subject and predicate of each sentence in the Cormac McCarthy excerpt on page 131 of Sin and Syntax. Can you identify compound predicates? What do you notice about the way McCarthy handles subjects? Can you say anything about the flow of the sentences, and the way the subjects and predicates function stylistically in his paragraph? Write: Compose your epitaph, the real-life summation of who you are, or what you've done in your life that might appear on your tombstone. Feel free to be whimsical or witty, but make it true. After you've written it, notice how the subject and the predicate make up a little narrative, a subject (presumably you) and a predicament that subject found himself or herself in. Next, using Alec Wilkinson’s profile of Garland Bunting as an example (Sin and Syntax, page 143), write a brief character sketch of an eccentric person. Make sure to keep the focus on the person by keeping track of your subjects.

Week Eight: Parsing Sentences—And, no, this isn’t Catholic school

Read: Review the entire Words section of Sin and Syntax

Do: Parsing sentences—that is, going word by word through the sentence and naming which part of speech each word is—used to be a standard feature in English classes. As creativity became foregrounded in "language arts" classes, grammar was backgrounded, and parsing fell out of favor. But there is no better way to test your grasp of the various parts of speech than by parsing sentences.

Take the elegant paragraph below by E. B. White, from an essay called "A Report in Spring," and see if you can figure out which part of speech each word is. It might be helpful to develop a code for the part s of speech. (Here's what I use: N = noun, P = pronoun, V = verb, Aj = adjective, Av = adverb, Pp = preposition, C = conjunction, I = interjection.)

On Tuesday, in broad daylight, the coon arrived, heavy with  young, to take possession of the hole in the tree, but she found another coon in possession, and there was a grim fight high in the branches. The new tenant won, or so it appeared to me, and our old coon came down the tree in defeat and hustled off into the woods, to examine her wounds and make other plans for her confinement. I was sorry for her, as I am for any who are evicted from their haunts by the younger and stronger—always a sad occasion for man or beast. Write: Go sit somewhere outdoors and write a brief paragraph describing how the season expresses itself in what you see, as E. B. White did. Then parse your own sentences. Do you use every part of speech naturally?

Week Seven: Conjunctions & Interjections—Because, well, because Read: “Conjunctions” and “Interjections” in Sin and Syntax Do: Think of a recent news event covered widely in the press. Find the article covering the event that appeared either in Reuters or the Associated Press. Then find the article that appeared in The New York Times. Scan each story, circling all the conjunctions you can find. Do the different sources rely on different sorts of conjunctions and, therefore, on different kinds of sentences? How do the conjunctions affect the style of the story? Write: Compose a few sentences—nothing fancy, just stream of consciousness—about your last supper. After you’ve written them, analyze the sentences for your own use of conjunctions. If you write short crisp sentences without any sinces or whens or althoughs, try stringing sentences together by using subordinate conjunctions. If you already rely on subordinate conjunctions, try replacing them with ands and buts andfors and sos. How is your style changed by the use of conjunctions?

Week Six: Prepositions—Innocent little suckers (Not.) Read: Sin and Syntax, “Prepositions” Do: In the following sentences, many of the prepositional phrases should be pared back. Try your hand at making these sentences leaner. Madame Maybelle was speaking to the piano player in regards to the rules of the house. With reference to your pay, she said, I have many thoughts. The approximate amount of your retainer will be $20. She said she’d be willing to increase that in the interest of keeping him. So for the purpose of making him happy, she upped his wage. He said that in order to please him she’d have to feed him dinner, too. She agreed she would in the event that patrons started praising his music. He started to play a lot of popular tunes. A great number of patrons were happy, and said so. But their pleasure varied according as to whether they were drunk. And they were often in an enebriated condition. Nevertheless, Madame Maybelle showed integrity in her word. Write: No Great American Novel was written primarily with prepositions, so I don’t know a writing exercise that will help you use prepositions better. Instead, take a paragraph from a rough draft you have written and try to kick out prepositional phrases.

Week Five: Adjectives and Adverbs—The frill is gone (or should be)

Read: Sin and Syntax, “Adjectives” and “Adverbs.” Do: Write down three adjectives to describe yourself. Think about them, and maybe consult a thesaurus. Then, separately, write three adjectives to describe yourself to someone you are meeting at the airport who has never seen you before. How are the two sets of adjectives different? Write: In a short paragraph, write about one of your favorite possessions, using as many “Valley Girl Verys” as you can. Get them out of your system. How do the adverbs affect the tone of your writing?

Week Four: Verbs—The heartbeat of the sentence Read: Sin and Syntax, “Verbs.” Make sure you understand the difference between static and dynamic verbs. Do: Look closely at "Hoppers" (Sin and Syntax, page 59). In two minutes, brainstorm for as many synonyms as you can for the word walk. If you are in a class with others, compare your lists, not just on the quantity of your synonyms, but also on the quality. Then, pull out a thesaurus, preferably a Roget’s-style thesaurus (see Online and on the Shelf). Use the thesaurus to generate another list of synonyms. Find any particularly good ones? Write: Verbs give writing energy and power. Using Roger Roger Angell’s “The Catcher” (Sin and Syntax, page 61) as a model, go watch one person do exactly the same thing, over and over. Perhaps it’s an athlete. Perhaps it’s a cashier at the grocery store. Perhaps it’s a shoe salesman. Observe closely, noting the small shifts in the way the person does the action each time. Write a description of that person, capturing the smallest details and actions by using dynamic verbs.

Week Three: Pronouns and point of view Read: Sin and Syntax: “Pronouns. ” Also, check for blog posts and comments addressing point of view, including those on September 15, 2009 and September 19, 2009, Consider: Pronouns are mere proxies for nouns, and in themselves words like I and youshe and weitand they do not command attention like concrete, colorful nouns. But pronouns make a difference in writing, expressing that literary quality known as point of view. In nonfiction, every writer has to decide who is telling the story to the reader, which angle of vision will be used. The point of view can be first person (using “I” or “we”), second person (“you”) or third person (“he,” “she,” “it,” “them”). Point of view has many stylistic consequences, affecting tone and determining whether the piece seems objective and hard-boiled or subjective and emotionally revealing. Write: To experiment with point of view, go to a favorite restaurant and eat a meal. Write three capsule reviews—no more than a paragraph in length—each in a different point of view. How does point of view change the tenor of the review? Which sounds most like you? Which can you imagine publishing?

Week Two: Noodling around with nouns Read:  Sin and Syntax: “Nouns” Do:  Underline every noun in the following passage by Paul Theroux, from Pillars of Hercules (Putnam, 1995): “The 7:20 Express to Latakia” There was undoubtedly a more hallucinogenic experience available in poppy-growing Turkey than a long bus ride through Central Anatolia, though it was hard for me to imagine what this might be after a twenty-three-hour trip in the sulfurous interior of a bus of chain-smoking Turks, as day became twilight, turned to night, the moon passing from one side of the bus to the other, gleaming briefly in the snow of the Galatia highlands, fog settling and dispersing like phantasms, glimpses of dervishes, day dawning again, another stop, more yogurt, children crying in the backseats, full daylight in Iskenderun, rain in Antioch, all windows shut, the stale smoke condensing in brown bitter slime on the closed windows as fresh blue fumes rose from forty-nine burning cigarettes in this sleepless acid trip on the slipstream of secondhand smoke. How many proper nouns are there? Do you notice compound nouns, some of them open (bus ride) and some of them closed (daylight)? Would you agree that Theroux exploits nouns to create this scene? Write: Nouns are the cornerstones of effective scene-writing. Go sit somewhere distinctive—a favorite garden, a cathedral, or even a grungy inner-city laundromat—and notice what is special or evocative about the place. Use concrete, vivid nouns to paint a picture of the place. Carefully choose a few idea/feeling/abstraction nouns to convey what makes the place unusual. Can the place serve as a metaphor for an intangible idea?

Week One: A whole new way with words Read: Sin and Syntax: “Introduction,” and “Words.” Write: Pick three words to describe yourself to someone who doesn’t know you. They might be nouns, they might be adjectives. Once you’ve picked them, ask yourself these questions: Are these these words generic and somewhat vague (e.g. “writer”) or are they specific and precise (e.g. “novelist,” “poet,” “journalist,” “compulsive scribbler”)?  Go find a good Roget’s-style thesaurus and look each word up. Can you find even more precise words that give someone a much clearer picture of you?