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It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer's Guide to Crafting Killer Sentencesby June Casagrande
Making Sentences Meaningful to Your Reader
For years I made my living schlepping city council stories for a small community newspaper. Perhaps a third of the articles I wrote could have begun with an identical opener: “On Tuesday, the city council voted to . . .” But they didn’t. The reason: the almighty Reader.
In any type of writing, be it journalism, fiction, or advertising copy, the almighty Reader is the boss. But there’s no better field for understanding this than community news. When I worked in that field, the Reader was always in my face. He wasn’t like the silent, invisible, fickle master consuming literary fiction, corporate earnings reports, or sales brochures. The community news Reader wrote to me. He called me. And, because I was working in a much smaller arena than that of big-city reporters, he knew me. The Reader considered me part of the community, even though I lived fifty miles away, and he expected me to serve the town’s best interests while answering to him directly.
Yes, this got annoying at times. Especially when he failed to realize that he didn’t get to assign me stories: “I want you to do an exposé on how the president of my condo association refuses to put up ‘Keep Off the Grass’ signs.” In community news, the Reader will not be ignored.
Now that I no longer wake up in the middle of the night screaming, “I will not write a front-page article about your dog!” I realize this experience is a good thing. It helped me understand how to form sentences that serve the Reader.
Consider this story lead:
The city council on Tuesday voted on a budget that contains no funds for fixing Main Street potholes.
Informative, relevant, clear, true. But could the writer do a better job of remembering her boss, the Reader? Absolutely. A sentence like the one just stated is written from a writer’s perspective. The writer’s job consisted of going to a meeting, documenting a vote, and perhaps listening to some discussion of one important element of that vote—pothole repair. So that’s what got emphasized in the sentence.
But this approach downplays the facts that are most pertinent to the Reader. Look at the main subject and action of the sentence: The city council voted. The Reader already knows that the council voted. The council is always voting. It votes on thirty, forty, fifty things a month—most of which are total yawners. The Reader doesn’t really care that the council voted. He cares about what it all means to him.
These are the questions that a skilled newswriter asks: “How will this affect the Reader? Why should he care?” Such questions lead to an opener like this:
The bumpy ride on Main Street isn’t going to get smoother anytime soon.
Although this example works well, we’ve all seen this go too far. Used dishonorably, this approach can come off as pandering or even downright sleazy. Nonprint media come to mind: “Something in your kitchen wants to kill your children! Details at eleven.”
But if you stop and think about such sleazy tactics, you see that this lead really has the same problem as the snoozer lead: It’s writer-serving writing as opposed to Reader-serving or Viewer-serving writing. It’s deliberate manipulation, and Viewers can smell it a mile away. It works—but the best writing doesn’t stoop to this level.
To strike a balance between snoozer “the city council voted” sentences and sleazy “there’s a killer in your kitchen” sentences, all you have to do is remember the Reader. Ask, “What’s important to my Reader?” not just, “What will get his attention?”
The answer—be it about the bumpy ride on Main Street or the bottom line on a tax bill—then becomes the main point of your sentence, and your sentence can become a thing of real value.
Of course, it’s not always that simple. Wanting to accommodate your Reader and actually pulling it off are two different things. Ironically, sometimes the very act of trying to explain things to the Reader creates problems. Consider this sentence, written by a professional writer, which was in a piece I copyedited. I’ve disguised it slightly to save the writer embarrassment:
While the boat show is predictably crowded over the weekends, holding the event over Thanksgiving for the second consecutive year positively impacts the flow of attendees over the closing weekend, which is traditionally the busiest.
Any copy editor who works with novice writers sees stuff like this all the time. This sentence, while not the worst ever, contains a number of problems that are all rooted in the writer’s misguided attempts to explain stuff to the Reader. Let’s look at it piece by piece:
While the boat show
While is a subordinating conjunction, which we’ll talk about in chapter 2. There’s nothing wrong with starting a sentence with a subordinating conjunction in general or with while in particular. But such an opening can, in unskilled hands, pave the way for a problematic sentence. At the very least, it tells the Reader, “Stay put. It could be a while before I get to the point.”
is predictably crowded
Really? It’s predictably crowded? We can see what the writer meant: the show is so consistently crowded on the weekends that you could predict it. But does predictably crowded really capture this? The adverb predictably comes right before the adjective crowded, as if it’s modifying crowded, as if it means that predictably is a way—a manner—of being crowded. As you’ll see in chapter 7, adverbs are flexible. They’re so flexible, in fact, that they can modify whole sentences. You could argue, then, that this part of our sentence is okay. But is it good? No.
over the weekends
Nothing wrong with that—yet. But two more over phrases are about to appear in this sentence, so over the weekends sets up an annoying redundancy. We’ll look at this type of problem more in chapter 9 when we discuss prepositional phrases.
holding the event over Thanksgiving for the second consecutive year positively impacts the flow of attendees
Most of the choices reflected in this clause might be fine in certain cases. But the overall effect stinks. For starters, this is the main clause of our sentence. That means it contains our main subject and our main verb. (We’ll look at clause structure in chapter 3.) But both are downright anemic. Holding—the subject of our lengthy, winding sentence—is a form of a word that usually connotes action: I hold, you hold, he holds. But here it’s made into something called a gerund, which is basically a noun. We’ll talk more about actions made into nouns in chapter 13. The usage is grammatical, but is it wise to make this the main subject? Do you really want the single most important actor in your whole sentence to be the abstract concept of holding?
Here’s a more troubling part of that excerpt:
for the second consecutive year
The way this phrase modifies holding makes the sentence illogical. Let me pare down the sentence to show you what I mean: Holding the event for the second consecutive year positively impacts the flow. See how for the second consecutive year attaches itself to holding? We’re no longer talking about just holding. We’re talking specifically about the second time you do it. So our sentence says that the benefits of holding the boat show over Thanksgiving weekend apply only the second year. In years three, four, and five, holding it over Thanksgiving weekend has no effect. Only holding it for the second consecutive year impacts the flow. That’s just wrong.
positively impacts the flow of attendees
Positively impacts sounds like something in a corporate earnings report, and flow of attendees sounds like something in a fire safety manual. Each of these phrases squanders an opportunity to connect with the Reader in a more meaningful and tangible way. The Reader knows all about long ticket lines, bottlenecked foot traffic, and crowds in stadiums. He has visual and emotional associations with the concept of crowd control. There are so many ways to make the concept more meaningful than positively impacts the flow of attendees.
Impacts, all by itself, is a problem. It couldn’t be vaguer. Here it’s used to mean that something improves or reduces or ameliorates crowding. But impacts contains less information than any of these alternatives. Also, why use a word that could mean something negative or positive when you’re clearly talking about something positive? (We’ll discuss choosing specific words in chapter 6.) Making matters worse, some people argue that impact isn’t really a verb. They’re wrong. But since you’ll never get a chance to sit down and explain that to them, you have to decide whether it’s worth irking them.
Oh, and don’t miss that second over phrase,
because here comes our third over phrase:
over the closing weekend
So we now have in one sentence over the weekends, over Thanksgiving, and over the closing weekend. Personally, I’m amazed that the writer did such a good job of associating each time element with a specific action. Usually when you see this many time elements in a sentence you end up with a nonsensical statement like He took a three-year hiatus in 1992 or over the weekend he got lost over the course of three hours. The three over phrases in one sentence tell us that the writer was simply cramming in too much information. Then, as if that weren’t enough, one last thought gets tacked on:
which is traditionally the busiest.
This is called a relative clause (which we’ll discuss in chapter 8). Relative clauses can be great for squeezing in more information—when the information fits. But the usage here is like squeezing Louie Anderson into Ryan Seacrest’s jogging shorts. Not pretty.
Just look at all the distinct pieces of information we have in this sentence:
The boat show is crowded on the weekends.
This crowding is predictable.
The event is being held [or can be held] over Thanksgiving.
The event was held over Thanksgiving last year.
Holding it over Thanksgiving means crowds are better spread out over the duration of the show.
This improves crowding on the closing weekend.
The closing weekend is traditionally the busiest.
We can understand why the writer didn’t want to spend too much time on each of those points. But his attempt to slip them in gracefully failed because he was overambitious. He crammed in too much. The best thing you can do in a situation like this is to first consider whether any information can go (I, for one, can do without that predictably business) and to then break up what’s left into smaller sentences. The possibilities are endless:
The boat show gets crowded on the weekends. So this year, for the second time, it will conclude over the four-day Thanksgiving weekend. This spreads out the number of visitors and relieves crowding during the closing weekend, which is traditionally the busiest.
Saturdays and Sundays usually mean huge crowds at the boat show. The closing weekend gets especially jammed. But last year the producers had an idea: why not make the last weekend of the event the four-day Thanksgiving weekend? The strategy was so successful at reducing overcrowding that they’re doing it again this year.
I could go on. But you get the idea.
As a writer, it’s your job to organize information, to prioritize it with the Reader in mind, to chop and add as you see fit. But only by fully understanding the mechanics of the sentence can you do so in the best possible way.
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