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On Reading and Writing

“Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.” – William Faulkner

The man who owns the coffee shop that I go every morning is frustrated about his son’s lackluster English grade. He gets mostly C/C+ on most of his writing assignments. At the mention of writing that rings a bell in my head. I suggest cultivation of a reading habit—to read whatever subject that interests his son, in stead of playing video games.

All the grammar guides, writing tips, and books on writing will not make you a better writer if one never reads. Reading is just as crucial as actually writing, if not more so, and the work one produces will only be as good as the work you read.

Reading and writing go hand-in-hand. I have never met a good writer who doesn’t read—and reads widely. Through reading one will gain knowledge and find inspiration. As I read more, I have learned to read with a writer’s eye. Even grammar sinks in when I read. If you’re worried about knowing all the rules of grammar, then just read books written by adept writers. Eventually, it all will become part of your mental makeup.

A well-read writer has a better handle on vocabulary, understands the nuances of language, and recognizes the difference between poor and quality writing. Most importantly, what I read will somehow manifest and find the way back in my writing. I attribute this to the brain, which is like a sponge that soaks up everything we observe and experience throughout our lives, and each thing we are exposed to becomes part of the very fiber of our beings. What we read is no exception.

Back to the Basics: Sentence Diagrams

After reading the first batch of in-class essays from Freshman Composition, I have decided that I have to return to the basics: sentence diagram. A bit of the history. Most methods of diagramming are based on the work of Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg in their book Graded Lessons in English and the later Higher Lessons in English.

A sentence (to be a sentence) at the very least must have a Subject (noun or pronoun) and a Predicate (verb). The remaining words in a sentence serve to describe, clarify or give us more information about the subject or the verb. A diagram arranges the parts of a sentence like a picture in order to show the relationship of words and groups of words within the sentence. Here are some examples:

Few people today are very familiar with the formal concept of diagramming, which is sometimes taught in English classes. This method is very instructive – but also very cumbersome. Take, for instance, the sentence:

Each day he sends his closest friends some e-mail.

This would have been diagrammed in the following way:

In this diagram, each modifying word (or phrase) is lined-up beneath the word it modifies – and this takes-up much space. You also have to know whether the word is a noun, verb, adjective, preposition, infinitive, etc., for each type of word has a specific way of being placed on the “tree.” This goes beyond what most people today know how to do.

Here, we are suggesting a modified form of diagramming. This method is easier to use, for it doesn’t require as much understanding of the language terminology. Also, it is a lot less cumbersome.

In this modified method of diagramming, the same sentence used above might look like this:
He sends – some e-mail
– each day
– (to) his closest friends.

Here, we see the main things we need to know: (1) what he sends, (2) when he sends it, (3) and to whom he sends it. (The word “to” is understood, though not actually part of the sentence. Also, we have taken the liberty to rearrange the sentence – which is perfectly acceptable with this technique, as long as we don’t change its meaning.)

Have you done the sentence diagrams in grade school? Was it helpful to you as a writer? I believe high school should reinstate sentence diagram to help students become better reader and writer.