The Don't Panic Success Guide to Sentences

Save Our Sentences: Join the Revolution!

Research Report

(© Lucy Cripps. This has been submitted as part of my MA in Professional Writing at University College Falmouth.)

What I am writing

The ‘Don’t Panic’ Success Guide to Sentences will first clearly explain what clauses and phrases are, go on to introduce simple, compound, complex and compound-complex sentences and how to recognise them, then will explain what sentence fragments, choppy, run-on and stringy sentences are, as well as shine a light on the mysterious comma splice. It will also cover a few rhetorical and emphatic structures, which may sound scary but really aren’t!
With fun examples, images, analogies and occasional exercises to get the brain thinking, this brave renewed world of sentences will open up for both cover-to-cover readers and those who’d rather dip in and out. It’s not an exercise book, and it’s not a textbook, it’s not academic, and it’s not heavy-going. What we have here is a gap about to be filled.
The ‘Don’t Panic’ Success Guide to Sentences is Eats, Shoots and Leaves meets Horrible Histories for grown-ups: a humiliation-saving device for professionals, parents, and prestige-hunting students.
Sentence types and sentence problems aren’t difficult things to grasp, but few people are aware that they even exist. Those that hear about them and want to learn about them — possibly because they are now appearing in primary and secondary curricula — will find that grammar books written for children don’t go into enough detail for adults, but often the books written for adults are convoluted, sleep-inducing tomes for linguistic students or professional writers, and they usually assume a solid understanding of the terminology and the basics. There’s no happy middle ground. Until now.
Who is going to read it?
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.

Outline of research
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?

Current market

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&CBooks, 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.

Constraints (legal or otherwise)
Being able to get hold of the National Curriculum could be a speed-bump, but I think the information on it will more sate my curiosity than actually help with the writing of the book.
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!
Research Bibliography
Bailey, S (2006) Academic Writing: A Handbook for International Students (Routledge Study Guides). 2nd Edition. Routledge.
Bryson, B (2008) Shakespeare. Harper
Burton-Roberts, N (2010) Analysing Sentences (3rd Edition) (Learning About Language). 3rd Edition. Pearson ESL.
Deary, T (2009). Horrible Histories: England. London: Scholastic
Finlay M (2011). Everyday English. London: Michael O’Mara Books.
Fish, S (2011). How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. New York: Harper
Fogarty, M (2009) The Grammar Devotional: Daily Tips for Successful Writing from Grammar Girl (TM) (Quick & Dirty Tips) Holt Paperbacks.
Fogarty, M (2008) Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing (Quick & Dirty Tips). 1st Edition. Holt Paperbacks.
Fogarty, M (2011) Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students. 1st Edition. St. Martin’s Griffin.
King,G (2009). Complete Writing Guide. 3rd ed. London: HarperCollins
King,G (2003). Complete Writing Guide. London: Collins.
King, G (2009) Improve Your Writing Skills. HarperCollins UK.
Lamb, B.C (2011) The Queen’s English: And How to Use It. Michael O’Mara Books.
Leech, G (2001) An A-Z of English Grammar & Usage (Grammar Reference). 2nd Edition. Longman Group United Kingdom
Oshima, A (2006) Writing Academic English, Fourth Edition (The Longman Academic Writing Series, Level 4). 4th Edition. Pearson Longman.
Parkinson, J (2007). I Before E (Except After C): Old-School Ways to Remember Stuff. London: Michael O’Mara Books.
Petty, K and Maizels , J (1996). The Great Grammar Book. London: Random House
Petty, K and Maizels , J (2007). The Perfect Punctuation Pop-up Book. London: Random House
Quinn, A (1995). Figures of Speech: 60 Ways to Turn a Phrase. London: Routledge
Robins, H.J. (2010) An Introduction to the Study of Rhetoric: Lessons in Phraseology, Punctuation and Sentence Structure. Nabu Press.
Scrivenor, P (2010) I Used to Know That: English. Michael O’Mara Publications
Seely, J (2004). Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation . Oxford
Strunk and White (1918 – 2009). Elements of Style. New York: Ithaca.
Sullivan, K.D. (2002) The Art of Styling Sentences. 4th Edition. Barron’s Educational Series.
Swan, M (2005) Practical English Usage. 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press, USA.
Taggart, C and Wines, J.A (2008). My Grammar and I (Or Should That Be ‘Me’?): Old-School Ways to Sharpen Your English. London: Michael O’Mara Books
Thurman, S (2003) The Only Grammar Book You’ll Ever Need: A One-Stop Source for Every Writing Assignment. 2nd Edition. Adams Media.
Trask, R. L. (1999) The Penguin Guide to Punctuation (Penguin Reference Books). Penguin UK.
Truss, L (2003) Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation 1st Edition Profile Books Ltd
Townsend, S (1982) The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged Thirteen And Three Quarters. Methuen Publishing Ltd
Tufte, V (2006). Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. New York: Graphics Press
Woods, G and Ward, L. J. (2007) English Grammar For Dummies. UK Edition. Wiley.


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