Grammar for Improving Composition Skills: For some people, the hardest part of writing is the blank page, that looming, scary place where nothing seems to be happening, and nothing in your head seems good enough to put down.
Key to high school Grammar for Improving Composition Skills
Think of words as bricks and boards, sentences as walls and windows, paragraphs as houses, and essays, stories, and articles as neighborhoods. Your writing is a little world for your readers, which you furnish in a way that, you hope, delights them.
WRITE FOR THE CORRECT AUDIENCE
I once worked with a young person who couldn’t write light, fun emails for clients because he was still stuck in the university essay mode. Everything came out in a formal tone. I’ve also seen new students who should know better send very casual emails to their professors, completely lacking in even the simplest of composition niceties, such as capital letters, punctuation, or even “please” and “thank you.” Don’t be the person who doesn’t recognize when it is the right time for formal versus informal language! Match the tone and register of your audience.
OPENING SENTENCES CAN BE HARD, BUT THEY WON’T HAVE TO BE
If you’re having trouble putting down your first words, try these ideas. They can also break up writers’ block.
Build a structure first. Plan. Use a spreadsheet, outline, or graph paper. You’d be surprised how many writers of all kinds—speechwriters, newspaper reporters, novelists, screenplay writers, and so on—first sketch out their ideas in a structured form. Some use a slideshow program’s outline view to build a structure on which they can hang all their ideas, and then easily rearrange them by moving slides around. Use your big ideas as headings. Then break those down into their component parts. Then explain those parts with sentences.
Just write. Write anything. Write about what you ate for breakfast. Just get started putting something on that blank page. Break that psychological barrier. Know it’s not going to be perfect yet and be fine with that. It is fine. I promise. You can cut or edit it later. But for now, these are your first lines, you did them, and that’s something.
Write a complete plot summary as your first line. For example:
There are solid reasons you and your party members should completely support State Bill 301b and join our coalition in urging the governor to sign it.
She was a wicked woman, but purely so, and by the time she ruled the enchanted forest, she’d forgotten what it was like to love.
When I think about myself a few years down the road, I see myself working at Lexxtopia, Inc., managing a team of software developers, and making the best mobile software on the market.
Tell someone else about your writing. Some people feel that talking to anyone else will void their ideas of meaning, that in the telling, the magic is gone, and all that is left is dusty vagueness. But the important part is to ask the other person to tell your ideas back to you. You’ll probably find yourself wanting to correct what they’re saying, or add to their words. As the two of you discuss your project, take notes. Take lots of notes as quickly as you can. Those notes become your outline.
Start at the end. If your hero dies in the end, write that first. Then, write what happened right before the hero died. And then write what happened before that. Keep working backward until you reach the beginning of the story. This also works for speeches, essays, and even complicated emails: put down your final, summarizing thoughts, and then justify them.
Write the fun part first: the big love scene, the explanation of all the convincing survey data, the recital of the project that won you a promotion, the anecdote that perfectly illustrates the spirit of what you’re doing.
Write simply. Write below your level of learning. Write for a five-year-old. Don’t try to write the most educated first line ever. Write to be understood. Write what helps you understand what your goals are: Who is your audience? What do you want? What do they want? Who are the characters? What motivates them?
Tell it like gossip or a family memory. Begin as if you’re at a family reunion, or on the front porch, or at the hair salon, or as if you’re an old-timer who wants to pass something along to the youngsters: There’s a story I’ve been meaning to tell you. It’s about…
- When I think back to that time, I remember feeling . . .
- When I was a child, I had just one goal. It was . . .
Make a puzzle for yourself. Think of yourself as both a puzzle-maker and a puzzle-solver. You don’t know which paragraph will be the first one until you’ve written them all down and can see what’s what. Then, you can rearrange each of the bits until you find a pleasing order. Hunter S. Thompson was known for sending his stories to the editors of Rolling Stone in long streams of faxes. Once in the office, the faxes were cut into pages and paragraphs, and then rearranged on the floor: editing was like solving a jigsaw puzzle.
In this section, we are concerned mainly with writing essays and similar formal or quasi-formal documents read by authority figures such as teachers or bosses. However, even in the most literary writing (as you can see in the examples near the end of this section), the formal rules can still work very well.
A paragraph is the foundation of writing structure. In many ways, it mimics the larger structure of a typical essay. Each paragraph contains one or more sentences, which generally cover one subject. Informal writing,
there are three parts to a paragraph:
This is a general structure. Different kinds of writing can condense or stretch this form from one sentence to a page of paragraphs.
Besides those three parts, paragraphs have two important characteristics:
- They contain one main idea.
- They have multiple sentences.
How do you know when to start a paragraph?
when introducing an essay or a new idea
when concluding an essay or finishing the discussion of an idea when an existing paragraph seems to contain too many ideas (in which case, move each main idea into its own paragraph) when trying to avoid a big unbroken block of words—or “wall of text”—which can be intimidating Paragraphs can be any length, but good writers usually try to break down long paragraphs into several shorter paragraphs.
No matter how long a paragraph is, it should have a reason to be there, and have a job to do (a job that isn’t simply about making the writing longer, or trying to impress the reader). Broken-out shorter paragraphs are stylistic, but they can still contain discrete ideas. Just look carefully at your words and figure out where the natural separation points are.
The topic sentence for a paragraph is usually the first sentence. It should be broad, with just enough information to introduce the ideas that will be explained in more detail within the paragraph, or in other paragraphs. In more sophisticated writing, or in a longer essay, the topic sentence (or topic phrase) can appear anywhere in the paragraph, but it is always there.
BODY AND SUPPORTING SENTENCES
The body is where the majority of the paragraph’s work is done. It explains more specifically what was hinted at in the topic sentence, and answers any questions that may have appeared in the reader’s mind. The supporting sentences not only explain, but also justify the topic sentence: they give proof to its statements, legitimize it, analyze it, and break it down into smaller, explainable parts. There are many kinds of good supporting sentences:
data, such as statistics
quotes or paraphrases of others’ words
definitions of important terminology
contrasts and comparisons
a timeline or step-by-step report of what happened
NUMBER OF SENTENCES IN A PARAGRAPH
In elementary and high school composition classes, you may have been told the body of a paragraph should have three, five, seven, or more supporting sentences. By all means, follow your teachers’ instructions and give them what they want.
But just know that these specific numbers are not connected to what English grammar requires. The English language doesn’t care how many sentences you use.
Your teachers tell you how many sentences to use per paragraph because they know if they say, “Write a five-paragraph essay,” some students will write five three-sentence paragraphs (and short sentences, at that), and consider themselves done.
What they’re trying to do is get you to write fully, in detail, and to find the natural flow of your writing so you stop only when the conclusion is honestly reached.
The concluding sentence summarizes what has been said, or presents the natural final thought that should occur in the reader’s mind when all the paragraph’s ideas or actions are put together. Many times, the conclusion restates the topic sentence. In a story or other kind of sequential narrative, the conclusion tends to include consequences and outcomes. In other cases, the conclusion is an observation, which more or less says, “Given what we’ve learned in this paragraph, X is true, Y is not, and we don’t know about Z.”
Let’s illustrate all three parts of a paragraph using a passage from The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. The numbers indicate  topic,  body, and  conclusion.
 But Mole stood still a moment, held in thought.  As one wakened suddenly from a beautiful dream, who struggles to recall it, and can re-capture nothing but a dim sense of the beauty of it, the beauty! Till that, too, fades away in its turn, and the dreamer bitterly accepts the hard, cold waking and all its penalties;  so Mole, after struggling with his memory for a brief space, shook his head sadly and followed the Rat.
Notice how Grahame has done things that show his skill level. He’s started the paragraph with a conjunction. He’s used a semicolon to lead into the conclusion (where most modern writers would have made it a new sentence; The Wind in the Willows was first published in 1908). He’s used repetition in the narrative to give it almost a spoken-word feel: “the beauty of it, the beauty!” These things indicate he is skilled, but using them is not what makes him skilled. What makes him skilled is his ability to make the reader feel the story.
Grahame’s use of “But” at the start of the sentence is probably something you’ve been told not to do in your writing. Too right! Why? Because beginning writers tend to overuse conjunctions at the starts of sentences, as they seem to provide easy continuity when you’re not really sure how else to make your sentences connect. Grahame, however, uses conjunctions at the beginning of sentences sparingly, so they have a forceful impact rather than just being a bland paste that holds the sentences together into a paragraph.
Ernest Hemingway is a good example of a writer who explains complex ideas with simple language, as in this paragraph from The Sun Also Rises.
 The fiesta was really started. It kept up day and night for seven days.  The dancing kept up, the drinking kept up, the noises went on. The things that happened could only have happened during the fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences. It seems out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta. All during the fiesta, you had the feeling, even when it was quiet, that you had to shout any remark to make it heard. It was the same feeling about any action.  It was a fiesta and it went on for seven days.
Hemingway’s writing is so simple that where most other writers would have used many more commas, he uses only a few. Also, note how he also uses repetition: the conclusion is almost a word-for-word echo of the first two sentences, which make up the paragraph’s introduction. He uses the word fiesta so many times it’s almost a chant. It’s powerful! And the paragraph follows normal high school essay-writing structure very well.
The Five-Paragraph Essay
At the core of a lot of schools, writing is the five-paragraph essay. It’s a basic writing structure that can be used in much larger sizes, too, to construct long articles and even books. You’ll notice it’s a more elaborate form of the structure of the basic paragraph. Here, though, we’re providing rich detail, supporting the ideas in the introduction, and firmly wrapping it all up in a conclusion.
This is what a typical outline might look like. Use this as a framework to build your essay to its conclusion.
PARAGRAPH 1: INTRODUCTION PARAGRAPH
Provide a general opening statement. Sometimes this is provocative, controversial, or surprising.
Elaborate on your opening statement. You might provide background information; explain how it affects other people, things, or situations; or indicate why you’ve chosen it as your essay’s subject.
Give a specific statement of purpose or your topic, which can be your thesis, hypothesis, or main opinion.
Offer a brief overview of what you will say in your body paragraphs.
PARAGRAPH 2: BODY PARAGRAPH 1
Use the paragraph structure explained in Paragraph Structure section.
Focus on the single most important argument, reason, or fact that supports your specific statement of purpose.
Be sure to use data, examples, and anecdotes to reinforce your thesis.
PARAGRAPH 3: BODY PARAGRAPH 2
Focus on your second-most important argument, reason, or fact.
PARAGRAPH 4: BODY PARAGRAPH 3
Focus on your third-most important argument, reason, or fact.
PARAGRAPH 5: CONCLUSION
- Rephrase your specific statement of purpose.
- Emphasize why it is important.
- Refer back to the basic points of each paragraph.
- Explain how the reader should be feeling about your arguments.
- Generally wrap it up with a firm, assertive statement.
- Avoid ending with something trite like The End or That’s all I have to say.
- Instead of ending with a question like, “Don’t you agree that X is the best thing ever?” or “Don’t you think a good person would support Y?” try restating it as an assertion: “X is the best thing ever.” “A good person would support Y.”
Transitions and Coherence
Writers at all levels have a hard time making an argument that flows naturally from beginning to end—that’s why it’s taught in schools! Good transitions can help fix that by making it feel more like a story and less like a pile of facts and opinions.
Avoid simply jumping to the next topic.
Transitions can appear in topic sentences, concluding sentences, or both.
Develop a variety of transition techniques and use them without shame. Every good writer has a stock of useful phrases to ease them through their writing. In fact, as you’re reading, note how other writers move smoothly between ideas and see if those strategies will work for you, too.
Inside of sentences, these words and phrases can help you build good transitions:
- as a result
- at first
Between sentences, these words and phrases can provide good transitions: A good example of that is
- As I wrote above
- For instance
- However In addition
- In conclusion
- In fact
- Indeed Just as with X, the facts show that Y is also
- More importantly
- On the other hand
- Therefore This is also the opinion of Dr. Z, who believes
- To illustrate
- To put it briefly
- To summarize
- With this in mind
Good transitions are likely to suggest themselves during editing. See Editing section.
Common Essay Mistakes to Avoid
Don’t wait until the end to make your best point. Always lead with your best arguments. Sometimes, mistakenly, writers have the urge to put their most powerful arguments last, with the idea they are laying a foundation of small arguments that will lead to a big, undeniable argument that will win over the reader.
This is sometimes a successful rhetorical technique, particularly in speeches where audience members might be more invested in staying to hear everything you’re going to say. With the written word, however, there’s too much chance that if you don’t lead with your strongest arguments, a reader will just skip everything else you’ve written. Get them at the start.
Your supporting paragraphs should be several sentences long, but don’t worry about their exact length. Explain things until your point is well made.
Support your opinions with official data, research, and experts’ opinions, which are more persuasive than your opinions alone. Sentences that begin with I think or I feel need more than your thoughts and emotions to back them up.
Think twice about trying to be funny, unless you’ve been asked specifically to write a humorous essay. Most attempts at humor fail.
This isn’t about how to edit. It’s about why to edit. In short, we edit because we’re human and we make mistakes. Editing means we look at our text with sharp eyes to find errors and to fix them.
The longer version is we edit because we make mistakes, and we make mistakes because:
We’ve been staring at the same text for so long our eyes glide over errors.
The ideas are clear in our heads, so our brains fill in the gaps where pieces are missing. Other people will notice the gaps right away.
We frequently do not give ourselves enough time to do the work, because we underestimate the size of the task or because we waste time.
To edit your own work:
If you can finish with lots of time to spare, put the writing aside and then go back to it later. Even just a couple of hours can give you a new perspective on your own work. If you can go back to it days or even weeks later, so much the better. It will be like reading someone else’s work, and you’re likely to say, “What was I thinking?” more than a few times.
If you don’t have time to spare, a widely used trick is to temporarily change the typeface and the size of the text and margins. Make the margins bigger and the text larger. This way, your eyes are less likely to glide over familiar-looking blocks of text.
Don’t be kind to your own writing. The saying in the writing business is, “kill your darlings.” That means that any spot where you think you’ve been particularly brilliant is a spot where you should spend time making sure it’s really as brilliant as you think it is. Chances are, it can be trimmed, reworded, or even removed altogether.