Lesson Plan on Tightening Sentence Structure
(“Loose Sentences Sink Papers”)
Emily Wilbourne, Queens College, CUNY, Music
Music 121 or 122
Lesson objective(s): Students will learn to identify loose sentences in their own work and to cut unnecessary words in order to tighten their prose.
Total estimated time: 35-40 minutes.
Additional outcome(s): Ideally the process of cutting words will result in a shorter draft, that will then enable students to develop the ideas they already have and add in new material before the final draft of their paper.
Course work or assignment underway: A major piece of writing (any).
Work and/or reading completed before class: Completed draft of paper.
Sequence of Classroom Activities:
1. On an overhead or on the board, work through a sample student paper sentence. (7 mins)
Here is an example:
“Burford’s purpose in writing this article is to, in a sense, reinvent Cook as a pop album artist.” (18 words)
“Burford’s purpose in writing this article is to, in a sense, reinvent Cook as a pop album artist.” (15)
“Burford’s purpose in writing this article is to, in a sense, reinvent Cook as a pop album artist.” (11)
“Burford’s purpose in writing this article is to, in a sense, reinvents Cook as a pop album artist.” (8) [Note that you could also get rid of the word “album”, however that might begin to change the argument.]
Discuss how the excisions change the feel of the sentence. Reference the tone (and the authority given to the writer)
2. Have students select a paragraph or two (ca. 250 words is a good guide) from their draft and tighten the sentences as much as possible. NOTE that the purpose here is to be absolutely brutal with words. Perfect the skill of cutting out excess words; leave finding a healthy balance for later. (15-20 mins)
3. Once students have a “new” version of their chosen paragraph(s), they should exchange their work with a colleague. The colleague should read the original version AND the new version. Write a brief statement identifying which of the two versions is more successful and why. If there is a noticeable shift in argument (not just tone) between the two versions, point that out, too. (7 mins)
4. Return to the group for a discussion of the exercise. (10 mins). You may wish to take a show of hands for (1) how many students liked the new version of their own work better and (2) how many students like the new version of their colleague’s work better.
Other points you may wish to bring up in the discussion:
- This process of identifying material that is unnecessary to the sentence can also be extended to the structure as a whole: are there paragraphs that are unnecessary? Whole sections of the paper?
- What about moments in which you wish to appear less authoritative, or in which you wish to show that there are qualifications to how a statement should be understood?
Are there ways in which you can do that without “wasting words”? What is the difference between a vagueness or uncertainty that comes from loose sentences and an authoritative claim to uncertainty?
Reflection on the lesson’s success or alternative approaches:
Optional variant for students who can’t process the idea that any of their words are superfluous: have them re-write a key paragraph using sentences of seven words or less; no sentence fragments are permitted. Again, this is an exercise in brutality (and hopefully one which teaches them how to construct a direct, declarative statement), not a means to necessarily arrive at the ideal final product.