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Rich Writing is Additive, Not Subtractive

This article explains how rich writing is additive, not subtractive. To do that, it first explains how sentences themselves are constructed.

The engine of a sentence

To write a rich sentence, we must first write a bare one. And as even the plain car requires an engine, the bare sentence requires an independent clause.

An independent clause is just a subject and a verb.

He ran.
She swam.

Virginia Tufte calls independent clauses sentence kernels—a far prettier name, don’t you think?

Now, in a longer sentence, it can be harder to identify the sentence kernel. Here’s Gary Provost’s crescendo sentence again.

And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

What’s the sentence kernel? Take a moment and find it.

Answer: It’s “I will engage”.

Again, the point of this grammar nonsense is to teach you to see. You know the definition of a kernel now, but that isn’t enough. You want to start noticing kernels—and other grammar forms—when you read. And the more forms you internalize, the more tools in your toolbox.

OK, now let’s learn how richer sentences form 😍

The wheels of a sentence

Richer sentences form when you take a sentence kernel, and add to it modifying phrases.

Throwing his head back, the man laughed.

Here, “throwing his head back” is a modifying phrase, or modifier. There are three kinds of modifiers, but we’ll save the other two modifiers for the appendix. For now, we’ll focus on the main and usual modifier: the free modifier.

Free modifiers differ from adjectives and relative clauses (who, that, etc.) in a crucial way.

The fat dog that stole my drumstick ran back, wearing a look of menace.

Notice neither the adjective “fat” nor the relative clause “that stole my drumstick” can be moved to other locations in the sentence. These two forms are tied to the noun they modify.

On the other hand, notice the free modifier “wearing a look of menace” can be moved:

Wearing a look of menace, the fat dog ran back.
The fat dog, wearing a look of menace, ran back.
The fat dog ran back, wearing a look of menace.

(I omitted the relative clause for clarity.)

The first sentence places the modifier to the left of the kernel, and thus Virginia Tufte would call the sentence left-branching. In similar fashion, the second sentence is mid-branching and the last sentence is right-branching.

What can you start your modifier with? Nearly anything!

You can start with a preposition, an adjective, an -ing verb, a noun, a past participle, an analogy.

Preposition: I threw the ball in the dark courtyard.
Adjective: I threw the ball, red with rage.
Related Subject: I threw the ball, my fingers sore and aching.
-ing verb: I threw the ball, hoping to hit the dog.
Past Participle: I threw the ball, angered by the CEO’s laughter.
Analogy: I threw the ball, as if possessed by a giant’s strength.

You can use as many free modifiers as you’d like:

He drove the car carefully, his shaggy hair whipped by the wind, his eyes hidden behind wraparound mirror shades, his mouth set in a grim smile, a .38 Police Special on the seat beside him, the corpse stuffed in the trunk.

Brooks Landon, Building Great Sentences

Cue the cumulative sentence

A sentence kernel, to advance the action, coupled with free modifiers, to add sensory details. This is what Francis Christensen terms the cumulative sentence.

Today’s writing advice is subtractive, and it pounds it into you to cut needless words, which is important. But Christensen’s methods were additive.

Start with a kernel, and modify it, adding phrases and rethinking your intent as the sentence develops. A so-called “generative rhetoric”.

“Christensen,” one author writes, “saw the cumulative sentence as a way to move student writers from their threadbare, staccato prose to a richer, flowing style.”

And in the 70s, researchers discovered his methods worked: they helped his students to mature more quickly as writers.

Let’s adorn a sentence I wrote two years ago: “Tengo lives a simple life.” It now becomes:

Tengo lives a simple life, free of drama, writing from dawn to dusk, his hands stained with blue ink from his Mont Blanc pen.

You get the idea.

But Rishi, is listening to Christensen poison?

Do you have reservations with the cumulative sentence? I did.

I enjoy its look and feel, but I wanted to know, will these modifiers hamper readability?

Let me answer this first on a philosophical level:

You can marry rich writing and easy-to-read writing. E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web—the kid’s book!—is proof.  It shines in beauty and readability. For writing advice, look past novelists and copywriters. Look to childrens’ book authors.

Also, for where I am as a writer, I personally need to “make the other mistake” and try my hand at richer sentences.

Now let me answer this on a grammatical level.

To avoid muddy sentences, there two rules of thumb:

First, get to the subject quickly. Second, get to the verb and object quickly.

Thus, while right-branching modifiers are fine, we should be judicious with our left-branching and mid-branching modifiers.

Left-branching modifiers delay the subject and mid-branching sentences interrupt the subject-verb/verb-object connection.

I intend to still use left- and mid-branching modifiers in moderation. See, these sentences from Maria Papova are easy to read enough:

Life, like the universe itself, tolerates no stasis — in the absence of growth, decay usurps the order.
In any bond of depth and significance, forgive, forgive, forgive.

So is this sentence of mine from earlier:

“Christensen,” one author writes, “saw the cumulative sentence as a way to move student writers from their threadbare, staccato prose to a richer, flowing style.”

Tip: Prefer modifiers and coordinating clauses (clauses that start with and, but, etc.) to relative clauses (clauses that start with who…, that…, etc.). Relative clauses have a “tacked on” feeling that coordinating clauses and modifying phrases avoid. This causes what you don’t want in a long sentence: sprawl.


We now know the cumulative sentence concept, but there's more to know! Let's learn about elegance in sentences, and how to end a sentence.