I recently finished reading Jeff Anderson’s wonderful Mechanically Inclined. He offers a smart, systematic approach to introducing grammar and usage into writer’s workshop. For me, one of the true gems of the book is a focus on mentor sentences.
A sentence can say so much. In countless fiction books, one sentence often crystalizes an idea to drive home the author’s point. I often tell my students when I read a gorgeous sentence, I go back to look at the words, at the construction because even though I know all the words…I would not have thought to string them together in that fashion. Great writers are artists and we need to appreciate their art. But equally important, students need to study mentor sentences so they can grow as writers.
For the past month I have been collecting sentences to share with my students. With some sentences I have a lesson idea in mind. With other sentences I am eager for the students to help me uncover what makes the line memorable. Sometimes, I will share a string of two or three sentences because the magic is in how the sentences work together.
As Anderson points out, looking at a sentence takes a short amount of time but the rewards can be bountiful. Good mentor sentences help students examine author’s craft. Why did the author use a comma? Why that particular adjective? After all, good writers use grammar and style to speak to the reader. The construction of a sentence is at the heart of meaning.
My students will start looking at sentences the first week. My mentor sentences will lead to students finding their own powerful sentences to share with the rest of us. Then, students can use these guides to polish their own writing.
Here are some of the beauties I found in my reading so far this summer:
“I had heard of Billie Holiday, the jazz and blues singer, but I’d never really listened to her sing. Her voice mixed with the music like molasses with warm butter.” Jack, Navigating Early (p. 63)
“Humans have so many words, more than they truly need.” Ivan, The One and Only Ivan (p.143)
“The energy inside the factory was palpable. Machinery clacked and wheezed. Wheels and cogs married.” Echo (p59)
“Had father not been holding him, he too might have floated away on the wind, like a dandelion’s white-seeded parachutes.” Friedrich, Echo (p.58)
“Hirohito tried to show no change in his face, but he was changing on the inside, where people change when they’re sad or angry.” Delphine, One Crazy Summer (p. 123)
“The long grass of the dunes tossed its brown seed heads. The smaller pebbles, the ones that were almost sand, skittered across the beach.” Circus Mirandus (p. 33-34)
“You’d see the shiny, crow-black hair that hung smooth as paper from the top of her head to the bottoms of her earlobes. And you’d see the petite — pixieish, Miss Mallory called the — features of her face.” A Tangle of Knots (p. 13-14)
“At the beginning of summer it always feels like there’s so much time ahead: whole empty calendar pages of sunshine, warm sea breezes, midnight thunderstorms, and running barefoot in the grass.” Lily, A Handful of Stars (p. 96)
Now, finding great mentor sentences is like discovering sea glass on an early morning beach walk. I know I have found something shining that I can’t wait to show to others.
Happy sentence hunting!