Making sentences interesting

Over on Language Log, I’ve posted about a grade-school workbook exercise on writing “interesting” sentences. The instructions were minimal:

A good sentence should be interesting.

“I have a dog” is not a good sentence with which to begin a story.  If you are writing a story about your dog that was lost, it would be better to begin the story, “Last week my dog Shep ran away from home.”

Can you change the following sentences into interesting sentences?

On the basis of that, the kids were unleashed on six other sentences, like “I have a bicycle”.

Now, this is a workbook about how to write, so the suggestion is that the problem with the sentences is their form. I looked at two ways in which an English teacher might view such sentences as defective: they “lack vitality” because of their syntax; and they are information-poor (ultimately, a criticism about discourse organization). But of course the sentences (considered with no other context — this is important) are uninteresting because of their content, which is not only minimal but also scarcely gripping. If a stranger came up to me on the street and announced “I have a bicycle”, I’d be worried. (If the stranger was a young child, I wouldn’t be worried at all; kids often confide information that’s important to them. Context, context, context.)

So the workbook encourages kids to make their sentences (especially those at the beginning of a story) “interesting”, and the one model provided does so by introducing a whole backstory, plus new content. Well, of course I’m more interested in the fact that your dog ran away than in the fact that you have a dog (though if you started by telling me that, you might be about to go on to tell me something interesting about that dog).

The fact that the instructions refer to “interesting” sentences invites the interpretation that content rather than form is at issue, though, if so, the heading ought to have been “Sentences About Interesting Things”, not “Interesting Sentences”. 

Reader Jens Fiederer notes in e-mail that the instructions invite students to be creative in introducing further content in their revisions, to the point where the revisions could get the kids into trouble. It is just so tempting.

I don’t have students’ responses, but I have Steven Levine’s (the Steven Levine who sent me the page in the first place). As background, I should tell you that Steven and I have been exchanging mail for many many years in what we refer to as “p-word” mail.

The origins, long ago, lay in the obsession many gay men have with penises (especially big ones). (I should point out that Steven and I are both gay men, and we find it perfectly understandable that gay men should be interested in penises. We were mocking the fetishization of the penis, especially the really big penis.) So we started sending each other (by snail mail) phallic images, references, and the like (including depictions of literal penises). Dicks are everywhere!

Many years have gone by. Steven’s workbook page is just the latest. He’s introduced penises (mostly by direct mention of  them, but sometimes by allusion) into every rewriting of the uninteresting sentences. For “I have a bicycle”, “I have a big dick”. For “I have a pony”, “I have the largest penis in the tri-state area”. For “Brother gave me a wagon”, “Brother gave me a hard-on; isn’t that interesting?” For “My shoes are new”, “My shoes are very big, which proves the old adage about relative size of body parts”. Not, I think, what the workbook writer(s) had in mind. But entertaining.

9 Responses to “Making sentences interesting”

  1. Jens Fiederer Says:

    Congratulation on curbing your impulse to make your writing “interesting” until AFTER you got the professorship!

  2. Fernando Colina Says:

    There is the old game to make conversations more interesting: Add “in bed” or “in the shower” to the end of every sentence (I have a dog in the shower, I have a bicycle in the shower…) You guys could add “with a dick” the results would be almost as good, with the advantage that there is no need to think.

  3. Jeff Shaumeyer Says:

    Actually, I think “I have a big dick” could indeed be a gripping and memorable opening sentence to a story, and I’m almost ready to have Jay Neal threated to write such a story just to prove it. Maybe this is because the last thing we wrote began with “I was not born a cocksucker.” Now, how should I make that sentence more interesting?

  4. hsgudnason Says:

    After I read the original post on Language Log I was contemplating ways to make the sentence about the goat more interesting.

  5. Philip Says:

    Be careful, Fernando, about adding “in bed” to a sentence to make it more interesting. One of the VPs at my community college got fired for doing just that. And, no, I’m not making this up.

  6. Ellen K. Says:

    I personally think “I have a dog” is a much better story starter than “Last week my dog Shep ran away from home.”. It makes me want to read further to see why that’s significant.

  7. Pom Says:

    Last week my bicycle Shep ran away from home.

    I would be tempted to complete the exercise in that way, and you can’t say the sentences wouldn’t be interesting.

  8. Daniel Barkalow Says:

    I think that:

    6. My shoes are new.

    could be much improved as:

    6. Last week my shoes Reebok ran away from home.

  9. Sandra Wilde Says:

    Do you know how these workbooks are written? They start with a list of “skills” that are then farmed out to either in-house workers (typically former teachers) or an outside contractor, all working to a list of specifications. Completely unconnected to what good teachers know about the teaching of writiing.

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