Advanced Composition Aesthetics and the Writer's Colony
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    Isolating the Sentence
Although college tutorial programs prioritize paragraph-level assistance over sentence analysis, advanced writers need to once again focus on the singular sentence. Assuming they learned correct sentence diagramming in high school and conquered paragraph development as university freshman, students now explore more sophisticated issues related to punctuation and syntax. Robert Frost once said, "A dramatic necessity goes deep into the nature of the sentence" (Elbow, 281). W. Ross Winterowd pushes the sentence towards divinity, expecting that the reader "must be overwhelmed by the concatenation of almost miraculous sentences [just]  as he is by the attempt to justify the ways of God to men" (164). 
Let's rescue grammar from Mrs. Pritchett's junior high school blackboard. In the writing lab, I praise the conversational rush from a well-placed dash, glamorize the semi-colon, celebrate parallel construction, and flatter the participial phrase. Advanced students generally know how to punctuate correctly, but they've probably never explored grammar as a high art form. Jeanne Gunner, author of Beyond the Conventions: Studies in Prose Writing affirms my enthusiasm. She views punctuation as making "the most dramatic difference in your writing style in the shortest period of time" and, when "used stylistically," serving as "an essential part of authorial voice" (104, 74). 
     Beyond Structure
Metaphors abound as we try to understand the expression of ideas on paper. Consider Francis Christensen's analogy to the ballerina: "Following a paragraph is more like following a dance than a dash. The topic sentence draws a circle, and the rest of the paragraph is a pirouette within that circle" (234). Kenneth Burke views form as "an arousing and fulfillment of desires" which leads the reader "to anticipate another part, to be gratified by the sequence" (183). Describing the ideal structure as a journey rather than an outline, Ken Macrorie emphasizes that form "involves both discipline and freedom" (191). Peter Elbow describes the same journey by boat: "The sea voyage is a process of divergence, branching, proliferation, and confusion; the coming to land is a process of convergence, pruning, centralizing, and clarifying" (51). For fiction writer Kelly Cherry, organization makes "the tracks of her mind's thinking visible for anyone who wants to follow" (xx). 
Sailing past the linear, the logical, and the chronological, advanced students should play with structure. Streams of thought can weave, cartwheel, spiral, leap, confront, wave, loop, or zig zag ­ and still maintain patterns recognized by readers. In one assignment, students will switch papers and radically shift a classmate's text. As Elbow warns, "A genuine restructuring requires a destructuring" (302). 
Fortunately, saving multiple versions in word processing software simplifies our ability to cut and paste paragraphs into a new sequence. Similarly, we'll take advantage of desktop publishing to experiment with epigrams, italics, columns, charts, sub-headings, highlighting, bullets, and other layout toys. 
     The Scars of Revision
Undergraduates often view revision solely as proofreading, but they must learn to compact their words into a rich, dense globe, heavy with meaning. Peter Elbow asserts, "The most inexperienced writer can sometimes produce brilliantly, but only scarred old pros revise brilliantly" (121). He recognizes that revision feels like mutilation, comparing editing to "cutting your own flesh." The solution, Elbow urges, requires using the knife on your classmate's work first and studying how you eliminate the surplus and extravagant. In a similar analogy, Chicana poet Gloria Anzaldúa believes that creativity requires a "blood sacrifice:" "For only through the body, through the pulling of flesh, can the human soul be transformed" (40). 
Instructors must convince students that revision is not simply a classroom exercise, but a professional requirement. Buried among the bizarre anecdotes in Robert Hendrickson's The Literary Life and Other Curiosities comes this reminder: "Plato is said to have rewritten the first sentence of The Republic fifty times; Hemingway rewrote the last page of A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times; ... and Katherine Anne Porter worked on Ship of Fools for over twenty years"  (25). I read once that before novelist Charles Johnson won the American Book Award for Middle Passage in 1990, he spent twelve years editing his manuscript from 2,500 pages down to an even two-hundred. 
Using Cynthia Ozick's essay "The Seam of the Snail," the class will compare the more recent version with an earlier one printed in Ms. magazine under a different title, focusing on how revision improved the piece (suggested by Elizabeth Burmester in private e-mail). After a brief discussion of Ozick's biography, the class will look for signs of voice and personal experience in the essay. The class will also discuss how revision techniques presented in the Fiction Writer's Workshops at the University of Iowa apply to the genre of essays or literary nonfiction. Borrowing a suggestion from Nikki Senecal of the University of Southern California, instructors can surprise students by returning a "final draft" with comments for yet another revision. 
Author: Elizabeth Howell Brunner