November 15:  Balanced Sentence Day

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On this day in 1859, the final installment of Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities was published.  As with most of Dickens’ novels, A Tale of Two Cities was published in serial form.  Weekly installments of the novel began in April 1859 and the final installment was issued on November 15, 1859.

Dickens (1812-1870), the author of such classic works at Great Expectations, David Copperfield, and A Christmas Carol, was the most popular novelist of his time, and A Tale of Two Cities is the single greatest selling book of any genre with more than 200 million copies sold (1).

The book is a historical novel, set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution.  It’s appropriate that in a novel with two settings, the author would use the scheme called “balance.”  When writing about two or more similar ideas, writers balance the ideas by stating them in the same grammatical form using parallel structure, as in “United we stand, divided we fall.”  You can see and hear this balance in the famous opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities.  Notice that although Dickens is introducing contrasting ideas (best and worst, wisdom and foolishness), the clauses of the sentence follow the same grammatical structure to create balance:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way . . . .  

Using parallelism, anaphora, and antithesis, Dicken’s creates a long sentence that is nevertheless easy to follow because of its balanced structure.  The asymmetry of the contrasting ideas (antithesis) is brought back into balance by the symmetry of the parallel structure.

Just as Dickens opened his novel with a balanced sentence, he comes full circle in the final sentence of his novel, using a perfectly balanced sentence to express the final thoughts of one the story’s major characters, Sydney Carton:

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known (2).

Noticed how the two sides of the sentence, separated by the semicolon, are balanced by repetition and parallel structure.

Just as with all rhetorical or stylistic devices, you don’t want to overuse balanced sentences; however, it is a powerful club to have in your rhetorical golf bag.

Today’s Challenge:  Claim A Contrast

What claim would you make using two contrasting ideas, such as love/hate or success/failure, in the same sentence? Brainstorm a list of some contrasting ideas, such as, joy/sorrow, freedom/slavery, war/peace.  Then, write a balanced sentence that makes a claim based on the differences in the two topics.

For example, the following balanced sentence makes a claim about the contrasting ideas logic and creativity:

Logic teaches us about the world; creativity teaches us about ourselves.

Notice how the two independent clauses of the compound sentence are balanced by parallelism.

Once you have your own balanced sentence, use it as your topic sentence for a paragraph that supports your claim using contrast, details, examples, evidence, and explanation. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1-Mitchell, David. David Mitchell on Historical Fiction. The Telegraph 8 May 2010. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/7685510/David-Mitchell-on-Historical-Fiction.html.

2-Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. 1859. Public Domain.

November 14:  Sentence Variety Day

On this day in 1944, writing instructor Gary Provost was born. Provost earned his living as a freelance writer, authoring over 1,000 stories and articles.  He also wrote books in a variety of genres, including young adult novels, true crime books, and books about writing.

In 1985, Provost published a comprehensive guide for writers called 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.  In the book Provost covered a range of topics, from overcoming writer’s block to avoiding punctuation errors.  But one specific area he emphasizes is sentence variety (1).

Read the following paragraph out loud to both see and hear the point:

Sentences shouldn’t all be the same length. Seven-word sentences will surely bore your reader.  Here is another super soporific seven-word sentence. Stringing them one after another is monotonous.  Things change, however, when you start writing sentences that vary in length.  Listen up.  Can you hear the difference?  When you write with sentences of varied length, your writing will sound more like natural spoken language.  Try it yourself.  Write some long sentences, some medium, and some short.  Combine clauses. Rearrange phrases.  Most importantly, read your sentences out loud.  Use your ears as well as your eyes to read, listening for pleasing rhythms.  Make your sentences sing.

Good writing has the rhythm and resonance of spoken language.  Writers can’t write exactly like they talk.  After all, much of our spoken language relies on nonverbal cues. Writers can, however, imitate one universal trait of spoken language: variety in sentence length – some long, some medium, and some short.  As you revise your writing, read it aloud.  When your sentences begin to sound monotonous, check for variety in the length of your sentences, as well as for variety in the type of sentences you write.

Today’s Challenge:  Hold Your Ear Up to This Paragraph

What would you say is the secret to making written sentences sound as natural as spoken sentences?  The paragraph below does not have much variety in sentence lengths.  Read the paragraph aloud, and listen to where it could be improved. Then, revise the paragraph by breaking up or combining sentences as needed.  You may eliminate any unnecessary words, but try not to eliminate any of the paragraph’s key ideas:

The words in a sentence are like Lego building blocks.  The English sentence is made up of various parts.  These parts snap together like Legos of logic.  You can construct solid, syntactical structures to make sentences.  English words, phrases, and clauses come in multiple colors and forms.  The sentence builder can use them to construct many creations. Some of these creations are small, some are medium, and some are large. There’s no end to the fun you can have building sentences.

As you complete your revision, read it aloud.  When you have finished, write down the number of words in each sentence. Check the range of the number of words in each of your sentences.  Do you have some that are long, some that are medium, and some that are short?  Use this strategy on your own paragraphs as a method of revision.  Read aloud.  Revise. And try to capture the magic of the spoken word in your sentences. (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

1-Provost, Gary.  100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.  New York:  New American Library, 1985:  60-61.

November 13:  TED Talks Day

On this day in 2012, TED.com presentations reached one billion views.  TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) was created by Richard Saul Wurman, who hosted the first TED conference in Monterey, California in 1984.  Attendees paid $475 to watch a variety of 18-minute presentations.  In 2009, TED began to depart from its once a year model by granting licenses to third parties for community-level TEDx events.  The TED.com website was launched in 2006, and today there are TED events in more than 130 countries.

While the number of TED talks has increased over the years, the basic template of each talk remains the same as the first talks in 1984.  Each presentation is crafted to be emotional, novel, and memorable.

In his book Talk Like TED, communication coach Carmine Gallo acknowledges that the success of any TED presentation relies on a communication theory that goes back to an era long before TED talks.

It was the Greek philosopher Aristotle who invented rhetoric – the art of persuasion.  All modern communication theory owes a debt to the three rhetorical appeals that Aristotle called logos, ethos, and pathos. Logos means grounding your ideas with reasoning and evidence.  Pathos acknowledges the fact that humans have a heart as well as a head; therefore, it is not enough to merely make your audience think; you should also make them feel.  Finally, ethos is about the relationship between the audience and the speaker.  In order to keep an audience’s interested and persuade it effectively, a speaker must be both credible and trustworthy.

Gallo suggests that speakers analyze their presentations by assigning each sentence of the speech to one of the three appeals. The best presentations, Gallo says, will contain a high percentage of pathos.  Persuasion is defined as “influencing someone to act by appealing to reason”; however, reason alone will not win the day. We’ve been telling stories much longer than we have been arranging formal arguments or writing our ideas down on paper. Great speakers know the power of story and imagery to inject emotion and meaning into a speech (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Make a Persuasion Pie

What are the key qualities that make an effective oral presentation?  Watch a TED talk of your choice, and as you watch, take notes on where the speaker uses logos, ethos, and pathos.  After you’ve watched the speech, create a pie chart in which you assign each of the three appeals a percentage.  Write an analysis of the presentation in which you explain the percentages and the impact of each appeal.  For the full effect, watch a second TED Talk and compare your second pie to the first to decide which talk was more effective. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1-Gallow, Carmine.  Talk Like TED:  The 9 Public-speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds.  New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 2014:  47-48.