By “resonance,” I mean writing that stays in the reader’s head (echoes, or resonates). You know how sometimes you can’t get a catchy tune out of your head? We’re not aiming for such a long-lasting effect; but we want the reader to think “ahhhh” for a second or two after reading a resonant sentence.
Before we get into specific examples, where do you want to place your resonant sentences? The best places are, of course, the first and last sentences of the essay. The next best places are the first and last sentences of your paragraphs.
You can use resonant sentences in any essay you write. But make sure they’re appropriate; poetic phrases might be okay for a school essay, but they might be overdone on an SAT (or ACT) essay, and they would probably sound ridiculous on a college application. That isn’t to say that you can’t use resonant sentences in the latter cases, but they need to sound more muted.
Let’s look at some examples:
Abby Kelley Foster was an American abolitionist who not only opposed slavery, but believed in equal rights for all black people. She fought tirelessly against injustice, and eventually married fellow abolitionist Stephen Symonds. Many of Foster’s ideas were considered radical, and she often encountered resistance as she traveled from town to town. She also fought for equal rights for women.
This is a paragraph designed for a “three-example essay” for the SAT. In such an essay, there isn’t space (or time) to go into any real detail about the subject; just give a few important facts and move on. What I want you to focus on here is the last sentence. If you had time to write a more extensive biography of Foster, you’d certainly mention that she was both an abolitionist and a feminist. But the main thrust here is Foster’s abolitionism, and the final sentence only serves to detract from that. It’s not “punchy.” Suppose instead I wrote the following last sentence:
Foster’s language was often controversial, to the extent that her own passions sometimes led other abolitionists to distance themselves from her, which was counterproductive to her cause.
That’s a college-level sentence, but does it really drive home the paragraph? Certainly not, and an important lesson is that fancy wording does not necessarily make for a great sentence. Herman Melville’s “Call me Ishmael.” is usually found in top ten lists of best opening sentences from novels.
There are two glaring problems with the sentence (“Foster’s language…”). One is that the phrase “which was counterproductive to her cause” adds no information to the sentence. It’s just extra verbiage; it merely states the obvious. The other problem with the sentence is that it goes against the grain of the paragraph. I’m trying to tell my readers what a great freedom fighter Foster was. Describing her difficulties is hardly a way bring that home. Would you want to sing the National Anthem if it ended with “oe’r the land where we have some freedom, but more work is needed”?
So let’s give that closing sentence another try:
Abby Kelly Foster fought for human rights for over fifty years.
Even though a junior high school student could have written that sentence, and even though it sounds a bit sappy, you must admit that it drives home the point of the paragraph much better than the other two sentences did.
But if you’re thinking “wouldn’t a sentence that sounds more sophisticated and sums up Foster’s efforts be even better?” you’re absolutely correct. But by sophisticated, I don’t mean something so convoluted that only an English professor could understand it. You want to aim for casual maturity.
Abby Kelley Foster worked tirelessly for over fifty years, and her fight for human rights earned her a place among the pantheon of great American freedom fighters.
If you don’t know the word “pantheon,” you could just write “among the great American freedom fighters.”
You may have noticed that the closing sentences kept improving (they might earn grades of 3, 4, 5, and 6 out of 6). Often the key to good writing is rewriting several times. True, no one likes a “do-over,” but a great golfer takes 1,000 practice swings for every live one. With experience, better sentences will come naturally, and you’ll need to do less rewriting.
Let’s try two more examples:
Suppose you’ve written a paragraph about how the automobile has benefited society. Consider the following closing sentence:
Cars are literally everywhere, and they have changed the way we travel.
That sentence probably merits a score of 4, since it concludes the paragraph logically. But the word “literally” is unnecessary (and literally false – no cars in the middle of the ocean). Worse, the second phrase sounds simplistic, so it lacks resonance.
The vehicles that we now take for granted have brought people and goods a lot closer.
That’s not bad, but why not say “closer together” to add a warm, fuzzy feeling?
Here’s one more example: you’ve written a paragraph about how Henry David Thoreau got to know himself through solitude (Thoreau is most famous for his book about living alone at Walden Pond).
After he left Walden Pond, Thoreau spent many years studying natural history.
The sentence is factual, but it does not support the point of the paragraph. It also doesn’t feel like a conclusion – no warm fuzzy “ahhh” here. You want to conclude that Thoreau learned a lot at Walden Pond, and you want to say it with sense of grandeur that’s not overdone.
Thoreau poured his experiences into his classic work Walden, which became the most significant work on back-to-nature and preservationism of its time.
When I was in the 5th grade, my teacher explained how colorful adjectives could improve our writing. He singled out a student, and asked him to provide an adjective to modify the word “building” and sound more sophisticated. The student suggested the word “big,” and the whole class cracked up. Why did he offer such a juvenile-sounding word when the teacher asked for a sophisticated one? Because he wanted his message to be impressive, and what kind of building is more impressive than a really big one?
The lesson here is that often it’s the words that sell – not just the message. “A really gigantic, towering skyscraper” doesn’t impress a reader so much as “a tiny brick cottage that’s elegant in its simplicity” might. Put another way, suppose you’re writing an essay on Martin Luther King, Jr. for school. You need to keep your eye on two very different goals. One, tell what a great leader King was. Two, show your teacher what a great writer you can be. Spilling praise all over MLK does not help accomplish goal number two.