It’s Time to Start Writing

Today begins the first of four weekly exercises in writing, putting into practice some of the points of grammar and style explained in the Writing Smartly posts over the last couple of years. My plan is to review briefly the grammar necessary for the writing, cross-reference some relevant earlier posts, and then set seven exercises—three basic, three intermediate, and one advanced—for you to compose.

These are exercises in what are called the formal elements of composition. They represent the customary way of regarding language as a craft, the product of a skilled handling of materials. It can be enormously helpful, I’ve learned, to remember the distinction between the rough, or first, draft and the revisions (note the plural) that one then undertakes on that draft. As we begin to write, we are catching ideas about a subject, and those ideas have to be put somewhere, have to take a shape that incorporates them into a paragraph along with other ideas we have caught on reflection. The rough draft requires an expansive, open, welcoming disposition—creative in the real sense of the word. But ideas don’t always arrive in a shape best suited to the purpose we have at hand for them. And that’s where exercises in formal elements come in. By consciously constructing the parts of a sentence, we become familiar with the many different shapes those ideas can assume; we are framing out our reflections, and transforming ideas into thoughts.

These exercises, then, are preparatory to revising, not drafting, so you’re well advised not to be too creative as you compose them. Choose a subject you don’t have to think much about, and stick with that same subject through the seven forms. And forms is the right word here. Just like an algebraic formula (the word means little form), each instruction can hold any content you wish. Write as many sentences for each form as you need to until you sense yourself becoming proficient in matching form to content. We’re trying to think more abstractly, the better to prepare ourselves for what to do with all the ideas that will crowd in when we decide to sit down to write about something real.

So first, here’s a summary of the grammar behind the seven instructions:

A sentence is made up of clauses, and a clause is a group of words with a subject and a verb. A sentence with one clause is called simple, and a sentence with two or more is called compound. A group of words without a subject and verb is called a phrase. (See these earlier posts: Revising by Grammar and Practical Analysis)

The subject of a clause names what you want to say something about, but by itself it’s not yet saying anything. The verb makes up the predicate of a clause, that group of words which is actually saying something—making an assertion—about the subject. (See The Essential Minimum and More Revising by Grammar)

Some verbs aim their action directly at something; these verbs are called transitive, and whatever is being targeted is called the direct object. Other verbs have no direct object; these are called intransitive. (See Verbs of Action and Acting and Being)

Nouns name things, but there’s more in the world than our senses can perceive. A noun that names something we do perceive with one of our five senses (what we can see or hear or touch or taste or smell) is called a concrete noun; what we can perceive only with our mind is named with an abstract noun. (See Concrete and Abstract)

An adverb is any word or phrase that answers where, when, how, how much or why. A conjunction joins words; for now, use the conjunctions and, but, or therefore. To modify means to change, and to elide means to omit. (See All the World’s a Stage)

With that quick review, here are the three basic forms. Set aside your creativity for a moment, and compose at least one sentence for each, working slowly and thoroughly. Then check what you’ve composed against the instruction. It’s tedious but it works:

(1) One simple sentence with a transitive verb whose direct object is a concrete noun.

(2) One simple sentence with an intransitive verb.

(3) One simple sentence with an intransitive verb modified by an adverb in the predicate.

Here now are the three intermediate forms:

(4) One simple sentence with a transitive verb which is modified by an adverb and whose direct object is an abstract noun.

(5) One compound sentence of two clauses whose subjects are not the same and whose verbs are transitive; both direct objects are abstract. Join the two clauses with a conjunction.

(6) One compound sentence of two clauses whose subjects are the same. The verb of the first clause is transitive with a concrete direct object; the verb of the second clause is intransitive and modified by an adverb. Join the two clauses with a conjunction.

Finally, here’s the advanced form:

(7) One compound sentence of three clauses. The subjects of the first two clauses are the same, but the subject is elided in the second clause; the subject of the third clause is different. The verb of the first clause is intransitive and modified by an adverb; the verb of the second is transitive with two concrete direct objects; the verb of the third clause is intransitive. Join the clauses with conjunctions.

Remember, the point of these exercises is to train yourself in manipulating forms until they become second nature, that important next step toward mastery when you’re no longer conscious of building these structures, but are reaching for them skillfully as you revise. Next week, seven more forms.


Questions? Let me know. I work privately and in small groups with adults and students to help them improve their English grammar and writing. Email me at if you would like more information.


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