The Don't Panic Success Guide to Sentences

Save Our Sentences: Join the Revolution!

How to Write About Boring Stuff

Well, my research essay isn’t something I can ignore for too much longer. In readiness for the inevitable once the first draft it written, and, hopefully in an attempt to make what I write in that first draft not boring, I’m pulling together a list of sites and resources that I can read at a later date.

If in the meantime you happen to have the time and/or inclination to have a read and let me know what you think, by all means fill your boots!


And a little something I picked up as I googled: “Jane Austen was writing about boring people with desperately limited lives. We forget this because we’ve seen too many of her books on screen.” (Mark Haddon)But there must be something more to her boring people in their limited lives — how did she make boring interesting? Fabulous — a reason to read Austen.

*List in Progress*


If you see any, please let me know!







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Meeting the Mentor

I had a wonderful chat with my supervisor — Kelly Thompson — yesterday. It’s great to really have a chance to talk everything though in real life, and rather fun to have another person focussed on the book as well.

She helped me to get to grips with how the book should look and to define the audience more clearly.

I have a couple of people, of friends, that I’m writing for, in my head. I know these people so well that if I focus on writing just for them, I should be able to keep the voice strong relatively easily.

So, the plan is to go with a more food-focussed book: use baking and cooking analogies to explain how sentences work and how to put them together so they work scrumptiously. In Grammar and Writing, the class I’m basing the book on, I’ve already used a cake analogy to describe subordinate clauses and their importance within a sentence.

The idea came out of the video pitch I made for the last taught unit on my MA (I got another distinction for it … getting a spot embarrassing!).

(Given the changes Kelly and I discussed, obviously the title will change! And PLEASE excuse the dreadfulness of the production: I’m a writer not a designer!)

(some images from Shutterstock)

Kelly and I also decided to keep well away from it being an exercise book (happy with that!) and not just explain how to create the four different types of sentence, but that I also explain WHY any type of sentence might be chosen, and the effect it will have on the reader. Now we’re venturing into my other classes — Writing Genre and Advanced Writing Skills — which I’m more than happy about.My research mission now is to make sure that all the sentence components fit naturally into foody analogies. Surely that means I’ll have to do a fair amount of eating over summer to inspire ideas.


Imagine my horror at the idea of trawling recipe websites, eating food and thinking about sentences. What a way to spend the summer! How I shall miss the marking. Hehehe! (And for those of you that struggle with irony, I absolutely can’t wait to get started with the research! Yahoo!) I’ll keep you posted.

The book is shaping up nicely in my head, and I know where I’m going with my research. Only a couple of weeks to go until the end of semester and that glorious time when I can just lose myself in a world of writing.

Bring it on!


How to write about boring stuff?

There’s no denying it! Much as I love sentences and the grammary bits of writing and speaking, there are some — and you know who you are — who think that sentences and grammar are boring. Well, pah, I say to you.

That said, part of my MA is to write a contextual essay, so it occurred to me, on thinking about what on earth to write contextually about, that really, if I’m brutally honest with myself, grammar can, maybe, at a push, be considered boring. So maybe thinking about how to write about boring stuff in an interesting, engaging and easy-to-read way might be something worth pursuing.

I thought about all the books that I’d seen while researching this book on sentences and realised that there’s something of a glut of not-boring books for geeky types that are actually interested in ‘boring’ stuff.

There is clearly a market for people wanting to know more about those school subjects that once sent us into daydreams to avoid. We want to know all the things that we could so easily have learnt about had we only spent a bit more time being alert at school.

There is a number of publishers running series of ‘what I’ve forgotten’ books on modern languages, biology, economics, physics, humanities and so on and so forth. But how do you write for a lay adult audience wanting to brush up on half-remembered bits from school?

That, I think, will be my contextual essay study. There’s little doubt that grammar and sentence writing falls into that category, so doing the research will give me a second go at schooling, a glimpse into writing not-boringly AND a whopping amount of material for my contextual essay.

Now. Lead me to the boring section!

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Why Me?

Why I’m the person to write this

Because I’ve stood in front of that first class of students who appeared to know more than me, and because I have read and read and read and read almost every book there is about sentences, then taught the same course many times. I know this. And, perhaps more importantly, I still remember life without this knowledge.

I am still dazzled by the way understanding sentence types and sentence problems has changed my understanding of writing and my confidence.

Above all, I feel like I have a secret to share — the answer to the many questions I had as a student, I now have. I love those ah-ha moments that I see when students and friends realise that what I’ve just told them really could make a difference to their writing. Being able to do the same for the Brits would really make my day!

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Market and Competition

The Don’t Panic Success Guide to Sentences follows on from Truss’s bestseller, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, which has sold over nine million copies since its release in 2003. Eats, Shoots and Leaves opened the floodgates for oodles of similar ‘things I’ve forgotten or was never taught at school’ books and showed a burgeoning market that has grown annually for the last nine years.

Nielsen BookScan reported that adult non-fiction accounted for £722,094,661.39 of 2010’s book sales, with £2,659,046.28 made up of the 291,957 writing and usage guides sold. Nine years after its release, Eats, Shoots and Leaves still holds a solid place in the top 5 in this category.

It’s an odd category, spliced between fun gift book types (like mine), the English as a Foreign Language types and the professional writing guide types. When I contacted Nielsen last, of the Top 20 titles in the Usage and Writing Guides Nielsen BookScan 2011 YTD (year to date) chart, six also appear in less academic areas of bookshops:

– #2 Eats, Shoots and Leaves (now published by Fourth Estate) #11,379 on Amazon Books
– #3 My Grammar and I (Michael O’Mara) #4,970 on Amazon Books
– #7 How to Sound Clever (A&C Black) #13,569 on Amazon Books
– #11 How NOT to Write a Novel (Penguin) #21,135 on Amazon Books
– #18 Queen’s English, The (Michael O’Mara) #24,214 on Amazon Books
– #19 I Used to Know That (Michael O’Mara) # 5,390 on Amazon Books

My Grammar and I , which has topped the charts for two years in a row, The Queen’s English and Everyday English fall under the same genre and were in the position-of-sale spotlight in three of the Waterstone’s I visited last summer.
Evidence at the London Book Fair 2012 showed that Profile Books, Michael O’Mara, A&C Black, Summersdale, Penguin all believe in the size of this market enough to not only release updated backlist editions, but also to introduce new series of books–easy reading, fun and accessible books–that follow the ‘things I didn’t learn or wish I still remembered’ theme across a very broad range of subjects.

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The book idea came from my teaching a course called Grammar and Writing, which is the first of the undergraduate writing courses at Salzburg University. The first semester I taught it, I realised how important this knowledge was, and how much it improved my own writing (or at least my understanding of writing, even if it doesn’t always make it onto the page!).

Most of the book research thus far has gone hand-in-hand with my teaching and planning. Through teaching the course, I get to explain the ideas in a range of ways to see which is the most effective. Each semester, we discuss the successes of the sentence lessons specifically, which is enormously beneficial for the book’s development. The more I visit the course’s contents, the more familiar I become with them, and I will likely teach it twice more before the MA deadline.

Much of the non-teaching research falls under reading books about sentences, firstly to see how others have done it, and, secondly, to see if alternative approaches can nudge my brain into thinking about the characters that will represent each of the components that I’ll introduce in the book. While I’m not writing a children’s book, I have found that the books produced for children are most useful in this case because they have the imaginative edge that books written for adults lack. The creative side — working out the ‘characters’ that illustrate of the sentence components — in part has to be handed over to my imagination and long walks!

I’m incredibly lucky to be able to work alongside some very experienced, competent language professors, non-natives who know the rules far better than natives. In working together, we discuss the intricacies of sentence writing at a level I’d not be able to achieve anywhere else. I make use of them possibly more than I should but will continue to check accuracies with them.

In other areas of the research, when the updated, upgraded (eagerly anticipated) National Curriculum is released (whenever that may be!), I’ll trawl it to learn what the UK education leaders consider the important aspects of writing are, and I need to discuss sentence teaching with UK secondary school teachers, to ascertain what is expected of students approaching GCSE and understand how sentences are taught at that level because I think it’s closest to the academic level the book needs to be pitched at. Fun but thorough.

The lion’s share of my research needs to be on the voice I’ll write in. My feeling is that the Horrible History series is very much like the voice I’d like to use, so my aim is to read a number of them until I have a version of the voice that best suits my book. I’ll also pursue further reading to include publications (magazines, books and online fora) that target the audiences I’m writing for. I have a fairly good understanding of most of the groups anyway because I am that group, and many of my friends fall into the same categories, which means I just need to write with my friends in mind.

Because it’s to be a fairly visual book, I need to source a designer/artist who can work with me. This is something about which I know very little, but I also reckon I should find out how important it is for me to focus on … is it not something publishers would like to be involved in?

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Who Cares?

There are three obvious groups that need this book: professionals, undergrads and parents of school-age children.
Parents who have no awareness of sentence types and problems, but who want to support children nonetheless; professionals who need to write reports, e-mails, letters and brochures: anything that requires them to put their professionalism on paper; students who have no idea why their paper is ‘awkward’ or ‘clumsy’.

Educated, thinking, interested, motivated people who know there’s something they’re missing, but just not sure what. They’re likely to be broadsheet readers, Channel 4 and BBC watchers; they listen to Radio 2 and 4; they’re either graduates or middle management level and up, interested in self-improvement. They like to know what’s going on in the world, and they’re not wholly averse to a spot of celeb-watching or a bit of harmless gossip.

Essentially, The ‘Don’t Panic’ Success Guide to Sentences is written for the professional person I was three years ago–interested in language, interested in communication, interested in not looking an idiot in my online and offline writing.

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Baptism of fire: Baby steps into sentences

A couple of years ago, I stood in front of a class of uni students and had to teach grammar and writing skills, but I knew barely anything about either.

As I read and studied and taught and dodged heart attacks weekly, I began to realise this stuff was stuff I really should have known for a very long time, especially given I had a degree in English and was a fully fledged English teacher.


For the last three years, I’ve been flying the flag with increasing confidence where it comes to grammar at sentence and paragraph level. Two things that I’d not once been taught as a student despite asking a LOT.

So here I am, convinced that sentence types — simple sentences, complex, compound and compound-complex sentences — are the key not only to better writing, but also to faultless punctuation, that hallowed turf and the thing that English teachers bang on about with little actual knowledge or ability to teach (and I can say that because I was one of them!).

Over the coming ten months, I will be getting my manuscript ready to send to publishers, so, please, join me on this thrilling journey into the unknown.

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