August 27


S.O.S Writing — teach yourself to write better prose

I recently recommended a new textbook for writers and teachers of writers: S.O.S. Writing. The author of that book, Don Stewart, presents an updated and redesigned version of a great method of teaching prose style, Francis Christensen’s “cumulative sentence.”

You will learn how the magicians of writing—writers like John Updike, E. B. White, J. K. Rowling, and Michael Crichton—do their tricks. Think back to your music lessons, where you learned a few measures of a Beethoven symphony, or a riff by Jimi Hendrix. By studying how the masters do it, a little piece at a time, you will learn how to do it too.

I asked Don a few questions about the textbook and the method. He was kind enough to respond at length.

  1. Why does your method focus on the sentence? Why teach writing from that level, and not start at the paragraph, the outline, the sequence of paragraphs?

Central to S.O.S. Writing is a copyrighted numbering system that applies to all kinds of writing, but it’s easiest to learn as it relates to the sentence. Once those simple principles are in place, we move on to apply them to the more challenging content of the paragraph.

At the sentence level, we begin by looking at models from real authors and real literature. In fact, the first example in the book is from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Before long we’re looking at sentences by Michael Crichton, Harper Lee, and even William Faulkner. It’s a great feeling to be able to write like Faulkner after a couple of weeks. It’s like learning how magicians do their tricks!

Here’s how it works—it’s called Levels of Generality. A Level 1 is the main part of the sentence, the independent clause, and the writer could put a period at the end of it. But instead, she puts a comma and adds a Level 2, which modifies or develops something in the Level 1. Then there might be a Level 3, a Level 4, or even more, and the levels might appear at the beginning of the sentence, or somewhere in the middle, as well as at the end. They’re called free modifiers, there’s only eight of them, and real writers use them all the time.

  1. How do you make the transition from sentences to paragraphs?

For most of us, the leap from writing fiction to writing non-fiction is a huge challenge, primarily because we all grow up hearing and telling stories. But at bedtime, no child ever says, “Daddy, read me an essay.”

Fortunately, with the numbering system, it’s easy to slide into more serious topics, first with the expository sentence, and finally the paragraph. In a paragraph, the Level 1 is the topic sentence, the Level 2s are the main points, the Level 3s are the details, a Level 4 might be a quotation. Like the sentences, there are many variations regarding the placement of the levels, but the ultimate result is that the writing contains Specifics, Organization, and Style—hence the name, S.O.S.

  1. If I want to use the textbook alone, for my own writing, how would you recommend working through it? What might be a good amount of time, on a daily or weekly basis, to study with it and try out the different sentence forms?

There are eleven chapters in the book, with 32 videos ranging from three to ten minutes each. They are meant to be taken in order, as they build upon each other to deliver the content most logically. But the amount of time spent on each will depend on so many factors, such as one’s own starting point, personal schedule, and ultimate purpose. The independent learner is welcome to go to the website and download the free Teacher’s Guide for additional lessons, exercises, and suggestions. And I hope everyone will participate in the Forum discussions.

  1. In many colleges today, writing classes often don’t teach sentence-writing explicitly. Many rhetoric or first year Composition courses largely avoid grammar, in fact, and instead focus on argument-making in general, working with students to improve their understanding of audience, intention, genre, context, the appeals of logos, ethos, pathos, and so on. What do you think about that way of teaching writing? Can the S.O.S. system be combined with such an approach?

You are right that grammar is taught very little these days, from college all the way down. The grammar that is taught is too often intent on finding errors that can easily be marked right or wrong. A good example is pronoun case error (“Can me and Freddy have some ice cream?”) Teachers love these kinds of mistakes, because they need to be able to knock off two points here and there to come up with a grade. This is Band-Aid grammar. It’s for all those minor cuts and scrapes that can be quickly patched up, and then the victim is sent back out onto the dangerous playground of writing.

You ask, what about understanding your audience or appealing through pathos? Well, you may have a very sad story to tell at the P.T.A. meeting, but how, exactly, do you write your speech?

The S.O.S. Writing system, as I mentioned, emphasizes eight free modifiers, which are simply the basic phrases and clauses. I sometimes compare it to music. An octave has only eight notes, but with those eight notes, the composer can write a symphony. With the eight free modifiers, and the S.O.S. Writing numbering system to show you how to arrange them, you can write a symphony of language.

Take a look at the book!


cumulative sentence, Francis Christensen, Michael Crichton, William Faulkner

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