National Writing Project

Beyond Primer Prose: Two Ways to Imitate the Masters

By: Romana Hillebrand
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2
Date: 2004

Summary: Writing teachers commonly provide students with models for imitation. Hillebrand adds a level of analysis to her imitation exercises that helps students understand the nuts and bolts of what they are doing.


In my favorite strategy for introducing sentence imitation to my college students, I show a transparency of an old Family Circus comic. As the father sits comfortably reading the newspaper in the living room, the mother peeks into the room to explain that she has just finished reading to their little boy. The humor is based on the pattern of the mother's speech which is clearly reminiscent of a child's reading primer. Every sentence is simple and follows the subject, verb, object pattern. When students stop chuckling, I ask them to examine the source of their laughter. Invariably, the Dick-and-Jane narrative is identified with its simple "See Spot; see Spot run" directives.

While the mother is imitating—purposely or otherwise—the Dick-and-Jane sentence structure, the larger lesson for students here is that they too can get caught up in primer prose. I take this opportunity to point out that by increasing their sentence pattern repertoire, they can avoid the humdrum of Dick and Jane. Of course, for most students this takes practice.

By imitating sentences, students improve their writing, introducing varied sentence patterns, no longer composing paragraphs that are virtually horizontal lists with sentences pruned to the same basic pattern. Further, because the basic form spews from student writers more or less unconsciously, sentence imitation exercises, which demand intellectual involvement, put students more consciously in charge of these core sentence elements. In addition, while imitating sentence patterns, students become aware of structure, which supports their understanding of punctuation and promotes style awareness: word order, varied sentence lengths and parallel structure, for example.

Beyond that, sentence imitation is fun. Last fall at the Northwest Inland Writing Project's Young Author's Conference, I gave a sentence imitation workshop that delighted secondary students. Later, I repeated the lesson with equal success at a local junior high school.

At these workshops, our first syntactic focus was on the periodic sentence. A periodic sentence is one in which the reader must wait for the other shoe to drop; the structure of the sentence creates a sense of suspense. The subject of the sentence may be introduced toward its beginning, but the rest of the core sentence—which completes its meaning—is held in abeyance until near the end. Additional details are added inside the basic sentence:

The bald eagle, seen at the apex of flight, serenely perched on a tree, or boldly diving toward prey, is at once fierce, majestic, powerful, and independent.

—Variation on U.S. Department of the Interior, "Bald Eagles of Wolflodge Bay"

Or the details may be presented in advance of all parts of the basic sentence:

Slowly, all day through the forest, in the terrible heat, the soldiers marched.

—Frank O'Hare, Sentencecraft.

I wanted to present students with a periodic sentence that would help them retain knowledge of the form. I consulted the work of that modern master of the periodic sentence, Martin Luther King. The fourteenth paragraph of King's response, "Letter from Birmingham Jail," consists of a three-hundred-plus-word periodic sentence. After numerous "when" clauses ("when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers . . . when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no hotel will accept you . . ."), King's sentence ends with the base sentence: ". . . then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait." The students were delighted to learn that the sentence made the intended audience wait almost 340 words for its purpose, which matches the 340 years before constitutional rights were given to all. They were also delighted to compose a sentence as lengthy as a paragraph, a sentence that can end with a punch-line clause as if it were the punch line of a paragraph.

Here are three paragraph-length periodic sentences written by junior high students:

When the day darkens and the night lengthens; when the clouds fade to friendly gray; when the first flake caresses your nose and makes you sneeze; when the hallway of lights illuminates the heavy darkness; when the crunch reaches your reddened ears as you stomp through frosted ice; when children frolic in soft furrows of heaven-white; when crowds of people skitter across frozen lakes; when the search is on for the best among sledding spots, and when it's found, the excitement of digging a track with a lunch tray; when the mug of chocolate lies by the fireplace when you burst into the house freezing, windswept, and exhilarated; when the chatter of chainsaws sounds through the forest as evergreens are cut down and dressed in living rooms like Christmas dolls; when clatters and clip-clops and whirs and bangs and booms carve out the first minute of a new year, winter reigns supreme.

—Luke O'Rourke

Until you've seen the lush green trees; until you've felt the soft undergrowth brush against your legs as you pass; until you've heard the sweet song of the blackbird in the crisp morning; until you've seen the clean, clear, cool water slowly trickle off a moss-covered stone; until you've watched a sleek brown stag canter through a rich green flowering meadow; until you've smelled the sweet fragrance of a pine tree; until you've tasted that unusual fresh air that cannot be found anywhere else; until only after you've experienced all of these things, will you truly know of the virtue of nature and the forest.

—Ryan Tripepi

After the moon rises high above the pale earth, after the bright hot sun vanishes behind the golden hills, after the amber grains turn silver or blue, after the pale sky darkens into azure, after the children are tucked away, after the frost begins to bleach the land, after the adults retire, after the darkness grows heavy, after the demons come and dance in the light of the stars, after the moon takes the warmth from the sky and the land after the sun is long forgotten and darkness is all that is known, then the world is reborn by a flash of golden light at the east horizon.

—Rose Nesbitt

Luke and Ryan's sentences correctly use semicolons to separate the individual items. I had explained to the students that besides connecting two independent clauses that compose a compound sentence, a semicolon also connects items in a series if even one item already contains a comma. Because not one of Rose's items contains a comma, her clauses are correctly connected with commas.

Ryan used the alliteration "clean, clear, cool," having been influenced by King's "curse, kick and even kill."

Next we turned to the loosely constructed sentence. In a loosely constructed sentence, the basic grammatical form and meaning is completed in the beginning of the sentence, and a string of details—qualifying phrases and clauses—follow. Here are two examples of the loosely constructed sentence created by my college students:

You read about these dark and stormy nights in books, evenings when the streets are empty of cars and the skies are filled with clouds emitting loud bursts of thunder.

The tall golden grass swayed lightly in the warm breeze, while the cold water of the creek glistened like a diamond from the rays of the bright sun.

Again, I wanted the junior high students to experiment with an over-the-top, paragraph-length loosely constructed sentence that would help them nail down the form. I shared with them Dylan Thomas's paragraph-length loosely constructed sentence from Quite Early One Morning that begins with the independent clause: "I was born in a large Welsh town at the beginning of the Great War...." The rest of the lengthy sentence provides a list of events in a chatty manner. ugly, lovely town (or so it was, and is, to me), crawling, sprawling by a long and splendid curving shore where truant boys and sandfield boys and old men from nowhere, beachcombed, idled, and paddled, watched the dock-bound ships or the ships steaming away to wonder and India, magic and China, countries bright with oranges and loud with lions; threw stones into the sea for the barking, outcast dogs; made castles and forts and harbours and race tracks in the sand; and on Saturday summer afternoons listened to the brass band, watched the Punch and Judy, or hung about on the fringes of the crowd to hear the fierce religious speakers who shouted at the sea, as though it were wicked and wrong to roll in and out like that, whitehorsed and full of fishes. (1954, 3)

Here are two loosely constructed sentences of varied lengths written by junior high students inspired by this model:

When you think about government, you really think about convolution: the way you can't get a decent medical bill in this country; the way we are handling this war, our world domination; how now you can be violated and searched with no warning and no warrant; how you can't possibly be Muslim, or you are considered a terrorist; how people think they are patriotic, so they hang their little flags they fly everywhere, don't take action and don't support what is right.

—Christian Brandt

As I watched a bird fly sky high, above the deep blue sky, I thought to myself and pondered, what if the bird overhead should fall and turn the street bright red—what if a child finds the corpse and toys with the poor dead; what if the child pokes it with a stick, and the stick gets the boy sick; what if the sick boy dies somehow, and no one quite knows how we call this a cruel, just irony.

—Aric Fehrenbacher

Christian's sentence has a colon correctly placed directly after the independent clause. As with King's words, pairs of dependent clauses begin with the same words, combining Thomas's sentence pattern with the repetitions found in King's style. Aric's dependent clauses also reflect King's style along with Thomas's pattern.

The practice of imitation allows students an opportunity to be original as they engage in a constructive exercise. It is a fact that once students become familiar with the various patterns, their writing takes on a level of sophistication not always apparent in student work that relies on the common patterns of old. Imitation practices provide opportunities to study the masters and to learn new patterns. Realizing that student artists and other creative novices begin their years of inventive achievement with studies of the masters, I readily accept imitation as a legitimate learning tool for students at all levels.


Thomas, D. 1954. "Reminiscences of Childhood." In Quite Early One Morning. New York: New Directions Publishing Corp.

About the Author Romana Hillebrand is an instructor at Washington State University and a teacher-consultant with the Northwest Inland Writing Project, Idaho, where she serves on the advisory board member. Her internet course, "Avoiding Oral and Written Errors," is promoted by Education To Go.

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