From the newsroom


Sunory Dutt

The Guinness Book of World Records lists the longest sentence in English from William Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom! (1,288 words). And Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in the last section of James Joyce’s Ulysses stretches across 4,391 words. Both these authors belonged to an enviable group of avant-garde writers from the early 20th century.

But that was then.

In today’s era of six-second videos and news delivered in 140 characters or less, we have to get our words across faster or risk not being read at all. The Twitterati generation likes its text pithy and pretty.

CUT TO THE CHASE

When it comes to writing for the web, you’ve got to express your most powerful thought in the shortest sentence, period. After all, on the web, who has the time, the attention span or the initiative to go beyond three pages of screen space in a normal span of time?

Admit it, we’ve all skipped a website or blog because it looked too wordy. I recently chanced upon www.bagsbyjiju.com, which has an interesting collection of leather bags as well as a seemingly interminable account of the Legend of Jiju. Did I read it? No. Because

a) it was irrelevant to me as a customer and

b) Why would I, when I can spend that time browsing for the right tote?

Many readers have no inclination to trawl through copious text. Yes, we have short attention spans; it’s the bane of our generation. We demand fewer, but better words – ones that get to the point, and where less is more.

Apparently Winston Churchill would refuse to read any memo that extended over more than one typewritten page. He’d say, “Not compressing thought into a reasonable space is sheer laziness.” A man way ahead of his time indeed!

During my time as the sub-editor of a lifestyle magazine in Singapore, a member on the team was an extremely qualified writer from a top American university. With a penchant for writing incredibly long sentences. I wish I’d saved some of those sentences to share. Their average word count could range from 40 to 45 words! And at the other extreme was the editor who was a stickler for the briefest to-the-point sentences.  It was tough towing the line between appeasing the editor with crisp copy and trimming the writer’s longwinded words.

From that experience, the advice of author and editor Verlyn Klinkenborg in Several Short Sentences About Writing, rings a bell; ‘Know what each sentence says, what it doesn’t say, and what it implies. Of these, the hardest is knowing what each sentence actually says’ couldn’t be truer in the case of longwinded sentences.

KEEPING IT CONCISE

– Remember, the only link between you and the reader is the sentence you’re making. So start by keeping it simple. The success of being a good writer lies in making yourself understood to your readers, but not through your verbosity. Short sentences are easier to digest and follow each point of an argument or story. Like Roald Dahl’s words that bring his characters to life and to this day appeal to young and old.

– Fifteen to 20 words per sentence is the max you should be writing.  Here’s a good example from a recent news report. (http://news.yahoo.com/boat-venezuela-flights-booked-full-months-141950761.html) Notice how almost every paragraph consists of either just one sentence, or two at the most.

– Use the breath test. Read your sentence out aloud. If you have to pause for breath in the middle of a sentence, it’s too long. Chop the sentence into two or more manageable pieces by removing linking words like ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘so’ etc.

– Saying the same thing twice makes your words redundant.

For example,

  1. ‘Let’s meet up at 12 noon’ (6 words) can be condensed to ‘Let’s meet up at 12 noon’ (4 words).

  1. ‘In spite of the fact that Lisa was surrounded on all sides by a total of six dogs she managed to run away’ (22 words) can be tweaked to ‘In spite of the fact that Although Lisa was surrounded on all sides by a total of six dogs, she managed to run away escaped’ (8 words)

When American writer and journalist Ernest Hemmingway was once challenged to tell an entire story in just six words, he wrote, “For sale: baby shoes, never used.” Check out this link for examples of avoidable pleonasms. (http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/concise.htm)

– Following a longish paragraph or sentence with a shorter or stand-alone one on a white space can create greater impact and helps to heighten the drama. Like these lines from Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner: ­

America was different. America was a river, roaring along, unmindful of the past. I could wade into the river, let my sins drown to the bottom, let the waters carry me someplace far. Someplace with no ghosts, no memories, no sins.

If for nothing else, for that, I embraced America.

– It also helps to stick with one idea per sentence.

Go figure!

Reading resources:

– The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White

– The Perfectibility of Words by Robert Hartwell Fiske

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