Do This One Trick and You'll Be a Better Writer

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When you read, search for golden lines.  That's the big magical tip!  Oh la la.

Let me unpack that a bit. 

First, golden lines are phrases or sentences that get your attention. They stand out. 

Here's how you search for them:

  1. Read. Read anything.

  2. Read for understanding and/or enjoyment.

  3. But, also read like a writer, looking for golden lines.

  4. Then, when you find a golden line, have a conversation with your sweet self that goes something like this:

Hey, Sweet Self, Look! That sentence stands out to me. I love it. Hmmmm. Why? What did the writer do to get my attention? Hmmm. Hey, Sweet Self, I could do that in my writing, too. Reading like a writer is awesome.
— Reading LIke a Writer Sweet Self

Repeat this process until it becomes second nature.  Let all those golden lines seep into your soul. They will. I promise.

Let me give you an example of golden line reading. Charlotte's Web has been a longtime favorite.  It's a golden line bonanza.  White's descriptions are so rhythmical.  Here's a golden line example:

charlottes web.jpg
When the first light comes into the sky and the sparrows stir and the cows rattle their chains, when the rooster crows and the stars fade, when early cars whisper along the highway, you look up here and I’ll show you something. I will show you my masterpiece.
— E.B. White

Yeah, I'm a word nerd, but every time I read this passage, I get goosebumps. It's pivotal in the story, but it's also lyrical music to my ears.  E.B. White is so masterful here. The rhythm of one super long sentence set right next to a super short sentence creates significance.  It creates a "you better pay attention because this is a big deal" moment.  

He could have just ended that super long sentence with "...and I'll show you my masterpiece," instead of "..and I'll show you something. I will show you my masterpiece."  The meaning is the same, but the writing move is so different.  And so powerful it stops me in my tracks over and over again.

But, here's the awesome thing.  THIS IS NOT A HARD WRITING MOVE.  Anyone can do it.  Just slap one super long sentence next to a super short one...and you've done it.  

Again, I repeat, this is a move any writer can do - not just the pros.  

Rick Bragg did a variation of the same move in All Over But the Shoutin':

What happened next remains one of those pages of family history that no one really wants to tell, but just can’t help themselves. My momma can tell it better than me, but not quite as good at Aunt Gracie Junita, who is the only person who can do so without giggling. Listen to them.
— Rick Bragg
All over but the shoutin.jpg

See that?  He wrote a two long sentences and ended with a super short sentence.  This is a writing move you can also do. I call it Long, Long, Short.  

It's a common move because it works.

Just to test myself, I pulled a picture book off the shelf (ok...full disclosure...I pulled two off the shelf...and hit the jackpot with the second book!), to see if I could find that same pattern.  

Bingo.  Here's the same long, long, short pattern in Crow Call, written by Lois Lowry - it's the first page of the book:

It’s morning, early, barely light, cold for November. At home, in the bed next to mine, Jessica, my older sister, still sleeps. But my bed is empty.
— Lois Lowry
crow call.jpg

In all three of these examples, that last short sentence does the same work:

  • It says, "Readers, pay attention - what's coming next is important."

  • It propels us to keep reading.

  • It creates a pleasing rhythm when pushed up against a long sentence.

So, yeah, I'm sounding very English teachery right now.  I know and I'll try to hold myself back, but I'm going to make a very NOT English teachery decree right now and tell you what NOT to do:

  1. Don't seek out a cute worksheet for practicing long, long, short writing.

  2. Don't begin writing a piece and say to yourself, "Oh...I'm going to do long, long, short three times in this piece."

  3. Don't keep notes, and lists, and journals about all your golden line reading - unless it really turns you on (Lorrie Tom raises hand). You'll integrate the writing moves that speak to your voice as a writer. You'll forget that ones that just aren't you.

Just keep reading like a writer. Search for golden lines and always ask yourself, "What did the writer DO to get my attention?"

Let these patterns seep into your soul.

I promise one day, when you've finished writing a lovely piece, you'll jump up and down, shouting with glee, "Hey, I just did a long, long, short!" And if you're really wild and crazy, one day when you're revising a draft, you'll think, "Hey, this might be better if I change this section into a long, long, short pattern!" It will feel like magic.

Always writing,


P.S. Did ya see what I did in that last paragraph?  I crack myself up.

P.S.S. Parents, if you do this with your kids, keep it chill.  Don't make it into an official lesson.  Make it more like a treasure hunt, or randomly exclaim when you're reading, "Sweet Child of Mine, you've got to see the sentence I just read, but I can't quite figure out what the writer did to get my attention.  Can you help me?"  

P.S.S.S. Teachers, all bets are off -- make this an official part of real live reading and writing lessons. Make your kids collect golden lines.  Do it often, but don't go Super Teacher on them - let the kids make up fun names for the writing moves they discover.  They will remember fun names they OWN instead of official English teacher terms. That is all.

P.S.S.S.S. Here’s a Facebook Live inspired by this post! Enjoy.