Writer’s Workshop–The Divine Detail


“Caress the detail, the divine detail.” —-Vladimir Nabokov.        

Sentences are the kernel of a paragraph, the molecules of an essay, the building blocks of a novel.

How do students learn to write impressive and effective sentences?  They should learn the generative rhetoric sentence lessons enthusiastically promoted by Francis Christensen, writing specialist.

A key principle of generative rhetoric is that the “essential” content in a sentence is found not in the subject-predicate base but rather in what we add onto that base. The base merely prepares the idea, setting it up for more specific elaboration by adding modifiers.

If students want to write sentences that inform, delight, amaze, that move ideas forward, then applying the principles of generative rhetoric, students have a chance to write sentences born of their imagination and experience,  adding specific ideas from the non-specific, their mind’s eye creating wonder at “the before,” “middle,” and “the end.”

Take these sentences, for example. The base or independent clause is colored blue. Notice the additions. Wow! Look how much more you know about the dog, the dancer, and the rodeo kid because of the wonderful additions, the modifiers. 

  • Perched atop his dog house, scanning for cats, squirrels, bad guys, the dog barked all night.

  • Chosen as the foremost ballerina, the elated tiny dancer twirled home, so excited she could barely explain her success to her mother.

  •  He entered the arena, tall hat shading eyes, chaps brand new, rope stiffly uncooperative, red silk scarf sopping up dripping sweat, eyes squinting for any fatal movement. 

 As you can see, the additions can be added at the beginning,  middle, or end of the base.  Students learn how to add-on, what to add-on, where to add the details, the modifiers, the verb clauses, the noun clauses, the appositives.

As a teacher you may hear: “Oh, man, do we have to add more stuff? What’s wrong with my five word sentence, “The dog barked all night?”

John Erskine, the originator of the Great Books courses, wrote in his essay, The Craft of Writing, “When you write, you make a point, not by subtracting as though you sharpened a pencil, but by adding.”  . . .  “What you found is not in the noun but what you add to qualify the noun.  . . . The noun, the verb, and the main clause serve merely as the base on which meaning will rise… The modifier is the essential part of any sentence.”

So how does this work? Consider the student’s sentence,  The dog barked all night.  That is the base, the subject (dog) and the predicate (barked)  but it is too generalized –we know very little about the dog or the consequences of his barking.

Now add modifiers of your choosing to fit your experience of a dog barking all night. For example, add to the front (shown as red): Perched atop his dog house, scanning for cats, squirrels, bad guys, the dog barked all night.

Add modifiers to the middle.  The dog, little Taco, famous yapper, barked all night.

Add modifiers to the end.   The dog barked all night, alerting the darkened cul-de-sac, angry windows thrust open, fiery expletives shoot the canine, yelping at the injustice of it all.

Adding modifiers moves ideas from generality to specificity. Adding can be more than one modifier at the beginning, middle, and end. 

Francis Christensen deduced the four principles of generative rhetoric from Erskine’s essay.  They are:

1. Composition is a process of addition. You use modifiers, be they adjective(s) A, relative clause RC, noun clause NC, verb cluster VC, adjective cluster AC, absolute, Abs, (i.e., a VC with a subject of its own), prepositional phrase, PP.

2. The second principle of generative rhetoric is the principle of forward or backward direction of modification or movement.   When you add a modifier, you must either add before at the head (beginning of the base), or after it. If you add it before the head, the direction of the modifiers is forward, if you add it after, it’s like an arrow pointing backwards.

#1 Example from my “**famous sentences.” Can you see the movement forward?   The tree, bedecked with lights, and red, green, blue ornaments, sparkled like a kaleidoscope, my squinting eyes blurring it into some kind of stained-glass mosaic.  Each addition sharpens the tree’s reality.  This example includes middle and after or end addition.  So you move from a general idea of a tree to a specific description of a jeweled tree.

#2 Example:  Can you find the backward detail, where we might pause and look back to the sentence’s ideas? **We donned layers of woolen sweaters, mufflers, mismatched mittens, little finger trying to cover the big thumb, —never quite the buffer against the cold we had hoped.” The phrase about the mufflers, mittens, little finger is an example of going backwards, stopping for a minute, to add to the reality of a childhood memory of playing in the snow. 

3. The third principle is about decreasing the generality or abstraction in the sentence.  With the base, the forward movement of the sentence’s ideas stops, so then the writer shifts down to a lower level of generality and adds more specificity, more detail. Just as you use binoculars to see more clearly, to see the detail of the moose’s location, so you use modifiers to adjust the knob to see him clearer in the meadow.  Again, the mufflers, mittens, little finger phrases offer backward movement (remembering a past experience),  the result of turning the knob for an up close picture in our mind, hopefully, touching a familiar memory.


 4.  The last principle is texture.  This is the good vs the bad. What a student adds to his/her base must be detailed, revealing, true. This is called dense texture. But if a writer adds too few nouns or verbs, the result is bare texture. Dense texture moves the ideas either forward or backwards; bare texture keeps the base static, not moving either way. 

The good, an example of dense texture: **”As we moved away from the “fox,” I remember how slowly we moved, loaded down with heavy parkas, our breaths exhausted in quick, short puffs, our throats ached as we gulped in the icy air.”

The bad, an example of bare texture: As we moved away from the “fox,” I remember how cold it was to play at night even though we had heavy parkas on. 

**When I was a young college student, I discovered a breakthrough in my own writing in a writer’s workshop at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The professor instructed us about the generative  rhetoric in the now classic Toward a New Rhetoric: Six Essays, by Francis Christensen.  I still have that book–the yellow front cover is gone, the binding is strong but some pages torn off. Yet, the ideas in this thin yellow book is the reason for some of my**famous sentences. (**see above). 

Finally, Click here: for the most graphic way to show the different levels and structures is to diagram the parts.   Christensen indents the word groups and numbers them. For your information, here is a chart explaining the different grammar parts used in awesome sentences.   

If you have questions or suggestions, please comment. I would appreciate your knowledge and experience.










4 thoughts on “Writer’s Workshop–The Divine Detail

  1. In reading there is nothing I love more than an expertly crafted sentence that just conveys so solidly, its point. I read it and read it again, just thrilled with the author for having put it so brilliantly.


  2. I am a retired English teacher, and I began teaching the Christensen method in 1969. I had seen a demonstration of his approach, and I immediately knew that it actually taught HOW to write. After his death in 1970, his wife, Bonniejean, kept it afloat until the mid-80s, when the publisher demanded revision. She was attending an elderly mother and could not manage both, so everything went out of print.
    Fortunately, I was able to track her down, and I acquired the copyright to all of his works. That allowed me to resurrect his publications, and also inspired me to write a series of workbooks that spanned the classes I was teaching, grades 7-12 (The Stewart English Program). When the internet came along, I put the lessons online, now at http://www.writingwhatever.com.
    I am thrilled that you are doing your part to keep his memory alive. I hope that we can connect and have a nice chat about this incredibly important method of teaching writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Teacher4Ever

      I also am a retired English and Drama teacher. Thank you so much for finding “The Divine Detail” blog post. I need to start blogging again. I am almost 75 and I have a real need to write my life story. I belong to a writing group which has really inspired me to get going, and I have. One day I told them about how to write the Christensen way. I brought my old book and some wrote down the author’s name and title. I passed out copies of The Divine Detail which they appreciated. I then searched on Amazon and lo, they had a brand new copy. I ordered it and I am so happy nothing has been changed from Christensen’s original writing. I will look online for your books, knowing how important Christensen’s ideas are for writing. Our kids and grandkids are great writers. Thank you for your interest in my post. As you can see, you and my daughter are the only ones who left comments.
      Diana Neves


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