Workshop: Sentences with Meat on their Bones

Ever had a professor criticize your sentences on the grounds that they are vague? Maybe a professor underlined your sentences and scribbled the command to “Expand!” “Elaborate!” or “Explain!” Maybe someone told you your sentences were just too general. Maybe you thought your sentences were being open-minded, broad, inclusive.

This workshop is about that–about the difference between the general and the specific and when and where to opt for one or the other.

Here is a skeleton:

“Conservative Europeans were supported by people who didn’t have a lot of money.”

Here is the real live beast:

“Almost every European ultraright wing or ultranationalist movement found its principal base of mass support among small business people or small farmers, or both”(Frieden 171).

The Living, Prowling Mountain Lion


Between the past and now, many different things changed for her.


Between 1994 and now, her idea of love grew cynical, though she would have used the term realistic.

Over the past decade, a degree was finished, a child was born, and a career was put to the side.

Over a four-year period, she tried laser therapy on her legs three times. Each time, it failed. The total cost was 10,000, or, as one friend pointed out, the cost of an undergraduate degree. Worth about the same, she said.

Skeletal thesis:

There are serious objections to today’s horror movies.


Because modern cinematic techniques have allowed filmmakers to get more graphic, horror flicks have desensitized young American viewers to violence.

The pornographic violence in “bloodbath” slasher movies degrades both men and women.

Today’s slasher movies fail to deliver the emotional catharsis that 1930s horror films did.

 Skeletal sentences don’t earn their word count. Give them some substance, or cut them.

One place we do see less meaty sentences are in introductions as well as topic sentences and concluding sentences. Using this image, we might imagine that a good paragraph would work like this:

"Meaty" Sentence"Meaty" Sentence"Meaty" Sentence"Meaty" SentenceFraming, Skeletal SentenceFraming, Skeletal Sentence


Even scholars who have spent years studying the New Age movement disagree about what precisely it is. For the sociologist David J Hess of Vanderbilt University, ‘New Agers’ are religious seekers ‘who accept the paranormal in the context of a broader quest for spiritual knowledge’. The anthropologists Ruth Prince and the late David Riches of the University of St Andrews, who conducted a study of Neo-Druids at Glastonbury in the late 1990s, framed the New Age as a form of social organisation that recreates hunter-gatherer patterns of life and seeks ‘to rethink in terms of first principles the very nature of human society’. In 1994, Christoph Bochinger, now a professor of religion at the University of Bayreuth in Germany, wrote a monograph on the New Age movement, despite arguing that the term is in fact an ‘invention of the media’. Meanwhile, many in the natural sciences and the skeptic community use ‘New Agers’ indiscriminately as a blanket term for contemporary snake-oil salesmen who profit from a recent turn away from Western medicine. (Breen n.pag)

 The blue sentence would be guilty of vagueness if it was in the middle of the paragraph.

Words to Watch out for:

Change. e.g. “That decade saw a big change.” (Doesn’t explain what the change was. Replace with something descriptive)

Direction. e.g. “Those decisions led us in a new direction.” (What direction? Where?)

Transforming. e.g. “Cycling is transforming the city.” (How? Positively? Negatively?)


In Class Activity

This activity works like an eye test: you’ll need to choose between two difference sentences, deciding which of the two is clearer, or, in terms of the metaphor I’m using here: meatier.

The German writer, Gunter Grass, was an unruly spirit throughout his life.

The writer, Gunter Grass, was complex in many many ways.



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