Demystify Writing Complex Sentences

Had the best teaching day today, so I have to share.

My students writing is improving and I am proud of them. I don’t think I can take much credit for it because I feel they improved greatly during our Winter Term (when I didn’t teach them), but the essays I just graded were ions beyond where they started in September. A lot of them have come a long way, but there are  miles of writing to go before they write both easily and well. I feel they are en route, though, and that’s amazing.

Of course, I told them all of this today. I love to praise because I love to be honest. When you’re honest, sometimes that = gushing praise. Other times, as a teacher, it = “What the Hades was your thesis? Were you drunk when you wrote this? What the what?!” In order for them to survive the many moments of brutal honestly that might sting, I praise when I can. I try to blend the two.

Last night when I was grading, I noticed that many students are experimenting–yet flailing and failing–with complex sentence structure. This is mainly because they don’t understand commas. You may have noticed from reading my blog that I am not one to claim ownership of the complexity of commas. Or grammar, for that matter. Or spelling. I honestly haven’t a clue how I became an English teacher other than my deep love for reading. Guess that was enough to sustain me for all those years until I found my writing self. Not sure if my grammar, spelling, comma self will ever be found.

So, although today we were going to discuss literary techniques used in our novel Girl in Translation (according to the syllabus), I decided we needed a lesson on complex sentences, commas, and literary techniques. I drew from Jeff Anderson’s amazing book Mechanically Inclined and pulled this lesson together on the train. And, if I might say so, it was great.


Here’s what we did:

1. We created definitions for Literary Technique & Complex Sentences on the board. I explained that they didn’t always go together, but that many examples of literary techniques (imagery, irony, foreshadowing, flashback, simile, metaphor, etc.) involved some beautifully long sentences. We focused on the idea that writing is like painting and that the author only has words and sentences to create his/her art. After having an Art elective during our Winter Term, I think they got this concept clearly. I could *see it click* in their eyes. They asked smart questions like, “What’s the difference between being repetitive and using repetition?” over and over. I could tell their minds were thinking about this stuff and thinking hard.

2. Then we went over a long laundry list of all the Literary Techniques they remembered from high school. They impressed me! (Good job high school English teachers!) The last time I did this at Kingsborough Community College I could hear crickets in the room. These students just kept ’em coming, listing many that I had inadequate definitions for therefore I turned it back to them and made them define the terms. Their crowd-sourced knowledge worked! Damn. I was impressed, and, of course, I told them so.

3. I then transitioned to us looking at four examples of how to use commas to create a more complex sentence. This is snagged straight from the book Mechanically Inclined (Every writing teacher should grab this book NOW. It’s a gem.). I had a handout, and we went over the four sentence patterns listed below in the table. I had them focus on reading with a slight pause at each comma. I made them re-read if they hadn’t fully articulated the pause so that they could hear what the comma(s) was saying. We discussed the four sentence patterns and when you might want to use one versus the other. (Scroll down to the bottom and the table is there. Weird WordPress formatting…)

4. Next, I had scanned a page from our novel, Girl in Translation, and I read it aloud on the board. I had them sentence stalk for complex sentences, and they were experts. Unasked, they started labeling them as opener, interrupter, serial, or closer. Awesome. We talked about reading for content versus reading to examine the writing. They got it.

5. I then had them read silently in their small writing groups and each find a complex sentence that rocked their world, write it on a post it, and then share if with the group. They then had to argue/fight/agree on ONE super amazing complex sentence and write it on a wall of paper.

6. Lastly, we gathered around the wall of paper like some sort of studio class, each group read their quote and explained what drew them to it, and we determined if there was some sort of Literary Technique at play in the complex sentence, therefore coming full circle to the beginning of the lesson.

FAIL: I ran out of time (I have an hour and a half class), but the next step was to get them to write, using their chosen complex sentence as a model. We will do that Wednesday.

But overall, I could literally see their brains exploding with all this information. It was like I had x-ray vision and watched their synapses make connections that had never been made before. They were bright eyed and engaged and not screwing around as much as normal–always good signs.

Sometimes I think a little writing demystification can go a hell of a long way.

Sentence:                                                                                           Category/Pattern:

We cruise past block after block of humble little houses, whitewashed and stucco, built decades ago. Interrupter Pattern: This sentence shifts the adjectives, whitewashed and stucco, after the noun causing them to be set off with commas.
When I opened the diaper, it was not what I expected. Opener Pattern: This sentence uses a comma after a long introduction.
Then somewhere a dog barks, the door of a nearby trailer opens, and light spills onto the gravel driveway. Serial Pattern:This sentence describes three actions that take place in a series.
All the trailers look the same, slightly ragged around the edges, lined up in neat rows. Closer Pattern: This sentence starts with an independent clause, which is followed by descriptions that tell about that sentence.

2 thoughts on “Demystify Writing Complex Sentences

  1. I am so stealing this! Like, now…next week actually. I’ll let you know how it transfers in my high school class!

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