Archive for January, 2020

One of my creative writing students’ assignments this semester is a series of blog posts, one each month, that addresses examples of techniques that they find instructive or pieces of advice that are edifying to them as writers. The focus of each of their posts may be any of the following:

  • an essay, story, poem, or play in our textbook, Imaginative Writing
  • a class handout
  • textbook author Janet Burroway’s observations on craft
  • another author’s observations on craft
  • a writing prompt from the CVCC Writing Club
  • a guest writer’s remarks on craft (some local writers will visit our class)
  • a Lenoir-Rhyne visiting writer’s comments on craft (https://www.lr.edu/public-events/visiting-writers-series)

While I was mulling options for my own post for the assignment, Roy Peter Clark’s new book, Murder Your Darlings and Other Gentle Writing Advice from Aristotle to Zinsser, arrived in the mail. That’s it, I thought. I’d found my subject.

When I turned to the table of contents, the heading “Voice and Style” caught my eye. Sentence variety has been on my brain for the past few days since I’ve been discussing it in both my creative writing and composition classes, so I chose that section of the book as the starting point for my reading—specifically Clark’s chapter on varying sentence length. There Clark draws on advice from the late Ursula K. Le Guin, best known as a writer of science fiction and fantasy. Le Guin acknowledges that a few isolated short sentences—or a series of them—can be effective, but she demonstrates the strength and beauty of variety in this passage:

Most children enjoy the sound of writing for its own sake. They wallow in repetitions and luscious word-sounds and the crunch and slither of onomatopoeia; they fall in love with musical or impressive words and use them in all the wrong places. Some writers keep this primal interest in and love for the sound of language. Others outgrow their oral/aural sense of what they’re reading or writing. That’s a dead loss. An awareness of what your own writing sounds like is an essential skill for a writer. Fortunately it’s quite easy to cultivate, to learn or reawaken. (qtd. in Clark 66)

Clark follows that excerpt with the word count of each of Le Guin’s seven sentences: eleven, thirty-two, fourteen, twelve, four, sixteen, and ten. For writers who compose by ear, that exercise of counting words may be more useful than the dissection of phrases and clauses. It’s a practice I plan to adopt and model for my students.


Clark, Roy Peter. Murder Your Darlings and Other Gentle Writing Advice from Aristotle to Zinsser. Little, Brown Spark, 2020.

Five, Six, Pick up Sticks

Posted: January 21, 2020 in Teaching

A flannel shoe bag, a pile of mini craft sticks, and a repurposed Q-Tip travel box: These items are in my hands most days. They’re often in the hands of my students as well. Any of them who walk into the classroom early—before the beginning of the hour—and spot the bag and the box of sticks on the front desk know that they’ll be working in groups that day, at least for part of the class period. Their job, if they choose to volunteer, is to make random groups by drawing sticks, which are labeled with the students’ names.

The size and number of groups varies from class to class. In my current English 111 class of eighteen, students draw names to create two groups of four and two of five. For the largest of my British survey classes, which has twenty-seven students, they make three groups of five and two of six.

The sound of the process depends on the volunteers. Before dropping the craft sticks into the shoe bag, some students shake the plastic box, rattling the sticks like dice in a cup. Others pour the sticks into the bag before they shake them, making slightly muted clicks, like coins in a sock.

To me, all of these noises are sounds of collaboration and community building, of students not sitting passively but instead taking an active role in preparing for class. A flannel shoe bag, a pile of mini craft sticks, and a repurposed Q-Tip travel box: In the classroom these are small, good things.