Teaching the Art of Short Sentences

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The short sentence is an undervalued tool in every writer’s toolbox. In a column in the Sunday Times, Roy Peter Clark explored how writers use short sentences to not only add variation to texts but to also emphasize key points. “Express your most powerful thought in the shortest sentence,” explains Clark who also is the author of numerous books on the writing process.

Great literature is filled with writers using this technique to create emphasis in a text. Clark cites examples from Orwell, Shakespeare, and Anthony Burgess. “Using short sentences to their full effect is a centuries-old strategy, found in opinion writing, fiction and nonfiction, poetry and plays,” writes Clark. “It works in a formal speech or in a handwritten letter.” Have students find short sentences in the texts they are reading. How does the writer’s use of that technique enhance their understanding and reading of that text?

Another way to emphasize the art of the short sentence is by using a site Imagecalled TodaysMeet. TodaysMeet is a service that lets teachers create a chat room designed to solicit feedback from students during class. In this instance, we’ll use TodaysMeet as a way to get students to type short sentences and to see the work of their peers in real time.

Project a long sentence or paragraph in the front of the class and have students join your TodaysMeet virtual classroom. Then, have the students type their own short sentences as follow-ups. For example, in the preface to Moneyball, Michael Lewis implements the art of the short sentence perfectly by reconstructing a conversation he had with the Blue Jays general manager, J. P. Ricciardi. Start the exercise by showing students this from the text:

It was at a Red Sox game that I tried to tempt Ricciardi into a self-serving conversation. Months before he had said to me, and with some insistence, that there was a truly astonishing discrepancy between Billy Beane and every other general manager in the game. He’d raised one hand as high as he could and and lowered the other as low as he could and said, “Billy is up here and everyone else is down here.” Now, as we sat watching the Boston Red Sox lose to his brand-new Blue Jays, I asked Ricciardi if he was willing to entertain the possibility that he was as good at this strange business of running a baseball team as the man he’d left behind in Oakland. He just laughed at me. There was no question that Billy was the best in the game… (Ask students to type into TodaysMeet what they think Michael Lewis wrote here. Using TodaysMeet they can see the guesses of their peers as they are submitted.)

The answer is these four words: “The question was why.” That’s it. Michael Lewis ends his preface with four simple words that summarizes the focus of his book in its entirety–and shows us the art of the short sentence.

Have your students discuss what they typed and how they feel using short sentences creates emphasis with only a limited number of words. They will also feel engaged by using TodaysMeet technology which enables teachers to create student-only chat rooms in a few seconds. TodaysMeet is also a fabulous tool for engaging students while watching video clips or even listening to a lecture. The concept is what TodaysMeet calls a “backchannel.” Pretty cool, right?

Jonathan Olsen

2 thoughts on “Teaching the Art of Short Sentences

  1. Love Today’s meet – especially during direct instruction – makes it a bit more interactive! Awesome stuff Jonathan!

  2. It helps that we stress it in journalism, but I’m a *huge* fan of short, concise sentences. Good read. Thanks for sharing.

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