Posted in Teaching, Writing

The Crunch and Slither of Words

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.