Good advice for writers


Lee Zion is an editor of the Manchester (CT) Journal Inquirer and in his final memo to his reporter colleagues before taking up a new job, he gives them this useful bit of advice: Keep your sentences to less than thirty words.

When sentences exceed 30 words, any number of bad things can happen. Subjects and verbs that don’t agree, tense changing in the middle of the sentence, pronouns that don’t have antecedents, and so on. But the biggest problem of all is long sentences have a knack for creating unintended silliness. I found plenty of long sentences in my time here, and three of these led to extreme wackiness. This is what I found while proofing pages at the Journal Inquirer:

May 20: “A local man was arrested early Friday morning on charges that he stole a truck from a local company after police located the vehicle in Bristol with his cellphone inside, according to a police report.”

This sentence is 35 words, and it says the suspect stole the truck AFTER police located the vehicle. Can’t you just see the master thief planning and plotting as he waits for the police to locate the vehicle, so then he can steal it?

May 30: “A Hartford woman with a history of larceny convictions was arrested Thursday on charges that she dragged an officer who was holding on to her vehicle’s door while investigating a shoplifting complaint.”

This time, it’s 32 words, and it says the police officer was holding on to her vehicle’s door WHILE investigating a shoplifting complaint.

It is true that most readers will filter out the silliness and arrive at the correct meaning. But a good writer should have consideration for the readers and will not require from them more mental work than is necessary.

I have found in my own writing the most effective tool for clarity is to break up long sentences into smaller ones. You don’t have to go full Hemingway, but even halfway there helps.

Comments

  1. Scr... Archivist says

    ZIon’s tips might be good advice for some writers. However, I should point out that the editor’s second sentence in the quote above is incomplete. He lists several writing problems, but says nothing about what they do.

    Also, his third sentence (above) begins with “but”, and his first sentence uses a numerical “30” instead of writing out the word. Aren’t these errors? It suggests that his advice should not be taken too seriously.

  2. Mano Singham says

    This was just a farewell internal memo, not an article for publication, so it should not be scrutinized too closely.

    But beginning a sentence with ‘but’, as I have just done, is no longer considered an error.

  3. hyphenman says

    Good morning Scr… Archivist,

    In American journalism, one of the standards is the Associated Press Style Book which calls for using numerals for all numbers 10 and higher. Spell out one, two, three… nine, but write 10, 11, 12 &c, except when the number begins the sentence, “Twenty people attended,” not “20 people attended.”

    Grammar and usage is always fluid. The rules are never really rules, but simply guidelines—like the bumpers placed in the gutters for kiddie bowling—intended to keep the casual or neophyte writer from making too many errors. (That’s 32 words if you’re counting.) : )

    Do all you can to make today a clearer day,

    Jeff

  4. hyphenman says

    Good morning AMartin,

    I was originally going to quote Orwell on this piece and had the critique you linked to on my reading list for this morning.

    Having not yet read the article, and confessing to be a devotee of Orwell, I will say this, given the body of work of Orwell and the body of work of Self, I am dramatically biased toward the former over the latter.

    I’ll post more in a bit after I’ve read Self’s piece.

    Do all you can to make today a better day,

    Jeff

  5. Mano Singham says

    AMartin,

    I had read Self’s essay and was not impressed by it. I agree with him that Orwell’s essays and long form reporting books hold up a lot better than his fiction which I never much cared for. Self, like many other critics, reads more into Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language (which I like) than Orwell himself claims. While laying down some rules, he also at the end said that one should be willing to break all the rules if necessary.

    Orwell’s basic point was that you should say what you mean as clearly as you can so that any reasonably intelligent person can understand you, and that those who fail to do so write that way because either their own thinking is unclear or they are deliberately trying to hide their true intent.

  6. says

    You’re not a fan of Virginia Woolf, then? What about the semi-colon?
    How far to take this? Short sentences, further parsed into single-sentence paragraphs. Surely a good writer ought not assume all readers are satisfied by this. But (yes, I’m happy to start sentences so) it depends on who/what you’re writing for.

  7. corwyn says

    Anyone who disregards advice, because the author makes mistakes in other places, will miss a lot of good advice.

  8. hyphenman says

    Mano,

    I’ve now read the Will Self article on Orwell and I think he’s having a laugh.

    The writing is so bad that I smelled a rat. Consider this paragraph from Why Orwell was a literary mediocrity.

    Over the centuries during which they’ve held sway these administrators of ennui have built up a sort of pantheon of piffle, comprised of talented mediocrities’ productions. There are entire syllabuses full of their lacklustre texts – galleries hung with their bland daubs, concert halls resounding with their duff notes, and of course, radio stations broadcasting their tepid lucubrations.

    To my ear this reads like a 6th-grade essay by a budding writer who has just discovered the thesaurus function of his word processor. Now, read a a paragraph from another Self essay, Why not caring about anything is only for the young:

    I’m not interested in discussing the existence or otherwise of God or gods – and nor, I think, was Dostoevsky – but what this passage, and the novel overall, forces our attention on to is the question of our beliefs. Dostoevsky understood that what humans are, in terms of our moral being, is crucially tied up with what – if anything – we believe. In the contemporary secular era, one the lineaments of which Dostoevsky could perfectly well discern when he was writing in the 1870s, there are plenty of people keen to assert that they have no beliefs at all, if by this is meant a settled conviction about such big questions as why we are here, where we are going, and whether good and evil are ultimate realities or merely functions of a given social structure during a particular era. The Cubist painter, Francis Picabia, was the herald of this new scepticism when he proclaimed, “Beliefs are ideas going bald”.

    I imagine that Orwell would shake his head at the first paragraph, but have no problem with the second. The difference in writing styles (granted, I’ve only looked at two samples so I could be way off) leads me to believe that Self intended to chase a bit of click bait by deriding a 20th century British icon. I have no doubt that in the short run he achieved his goal. I’m not, however, likely, after reading this one piece, to look for and read other essays by Self.

    Jeff

  9. AsqJames says

    I think a straight comparison of Orwell and Self is fairly pointless, because they seem, to me at least, to have almost diametrically opposite ambitions for their compositions.

    One’s a farmer, the other’s a landscape gardener.

    Orwell’s writing is primarily aimed at persuading the reader of something directly affecting (or likely to affect) them. Whether it’s the importance of a social issue (Wigan Pier, Down & Out, Politics & the English Language itself, etc), the likely pitfalls of one or more political ideologies (Homage to Catalonia, 1984, Animal Farm) or whatever, he wants his reader to gain understanding. Not that he doesn’t care about the craft of writing for it’s own sake, just that it is secondary to his purpose in communicating his thoughts and ideas.

    Self, even when writing about large social or political issues, seems to care more for the beauty and lyricism of the language than for any particular side, or indeed the issue itself. He is sesquipedalian, not because he’s showing off like a callow youth in a nightclub might dance to impress potential paramours, but because he revels in the sheer joy of expressing his own talents like Kevin Bacon in the train shed in Footloose. Not that he doesn’t care about politics or society or other matters, just that he cares more about entertaining himself and his readers.

    If you ever hear Will Self read some of his work aloud, I think this comes across quite plainly. He luxuriates in the sounds of words, bathes in a well-constructed sentence, splashing himself and the listener playfully with sub-clauses. I prefer to read Orwell for what he has to say. I prefer to listen to Self for the way he says it.

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