SEVEN WAYS TO SHARPEN A SENTENCE

By Nancy Lovell

“Be bold.  Be brief.  Be concise.”  E.B. White

Use your sentence’s two strongest places:  at the end (primary emphasis) and the beginning (secondary).  Softer ideas go in the middle.

Note: Think three times before wasting your beginning with  “It is” or “There are.”

Correct:  Although there are various reasons for paralysis such as injury, virus, or stroke, the message the body is giving is much the same.
Better:  Paralysis has multiple causes—paralysis, virus, or injury, for example— but in every case the body’s message is the same.

Correct:  There is no list on the page other than who brings coffee.
Better:  Beyond who brought the coffee, the page has no lists.

Lose the qualifiers . . .   really, very, pretty, quite, hugely.  The right word needs no gilding.  (From “How to Speak, How to Listen”: harness the power of understatement.  When you overstate, gush, exaggerate, hyperbolize . . . people mentally discredit your claims.)  Also, specifics lend credibility.  (“Specificity is the soul of credibility.” Peggy Noonan)

Correct:  We drove by this really big house.
Better:   We passed a two-story Georgian McMansion.

. . . and be concrete.  (“The surest way to arouse and hold the reader’s attention is to be specific, definite, and concrete.” E.B. White)
Correct:  I can’t do my work very well because my husband got sick and I can’t concentrate.
Better:  Since my husband’s heart attack last week, the computer keyboard blurs and the screen is a blank wall.

Avoid passive voice.
(E.B. White:  “The habitual use of the active voice makes for forceful writing.”)

Correct:     Their first visit to Boston will always be remembered by them.
Better:     They’ll always remember their first trip to Boston.
(A guideline about contractions: use them.)

Correct:    At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard.
Better:    The cock’s crow came at dawn.

Correct:    The reason he left college is that his health was failing.
Better:    Failing health forced him to leave college.

Use strong verbs.  Collect good verbs and keep them handy.  Shoot for single-syllable and go from there:  skip (pass right by), bolt (leave in a hurry), spike (shoot up quickly), unravel, diffuse, stir.  As you review and edit, look for “buried” verbs, especially those ending in -tion.  When you find one, uncover the root verb.  Examples:

Correct:      Mary Smith had obtained the school’s authorization to dance with the stars.
Better:        The school had cleared Mary Smith to dance with the stars.

Correct:    Anna felt she had an obligation friend Sue on Face Book.
Better:        Anna felt obliged to friend Sue on Face Book.

Correct:    Luciano was told by Clara that he had given a beautiful performance.
Better:        Clara told Luciano he had performed beautifully.

State the negative as a positive:
(E.B. White:  “Consciously or unconsciously the reader is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; the reader wishes to be told what is.”)

I don’t have any:  I have no . . . I’m missing . . .
She didn’t ski very often: She seldom skied
He didn’t have any idea where to go next:  He had no idea . . .he was lost

In every case, aim for short, strong words.  One-syllable words have punch.  In the same vein, avoid jargon, pretense, business-ese—any show-off words that alienate your reader.

Correct:  “I believe this book is unique in its content,” Getz said. “The 1,500 principles are situated in a life-affirming presentation, adjacent to the ideas that were their inspiration, each featuring a question designed in a way to help the reader apply them wherever they are in life or location. Then, each principle may be transitioned by QR code to online resources to take the application even deeper.”

Better:  “This book is one-of-a-kind,” Getz said. “Each of its 1,500 principles appears next to the text that inspired it.  Next to that, a question helps the reader apply that idea to his or her own life. After that, the real treat: each principle links by QR code to an online video lecture—taking that life principle that much deeper.”

Life Relation Each principle is stated such that readers can relate to their lives and understand how the principles should be applied.

User Friendly Each principle helps readers relate it to their lives and understand how to apply it.

Practical Each principle clearly relates to real people and applies to real lives.

Paula LaRoque challenges journalists to rewrite their lead paragraphs using only one-syllable words.

TEN STYLE TIPS

1.    Words in transition.
Impact – only two things legitimately are “impacted”:  teeth and bowels.
Hopefully – means “in a hopeful manner.”  it is hoped.  Let’s hope.
Awesome – if you use it to describe a salad, what do you have left for God?  (Avoid word inflation.)

2.    Words often confused and misused:
Anxious/Eager – right words are a pleasure
Infer/Imply
Hardly/not hardly
Bad/Badly
Use/Utilize
Less/Fewer

3.    Who and Whom
Mike is who we hope will win.  (We hope HE will win.)
Mike is whom we’re voting for. (We’re voting for HIM.)

4.    That and Which:  Which always follows a comma; that does not.

5.    Salutations and commas:
Hello, Dolly.   Hi, Mary.   Hey, Sam.   Thanks, Dad.   No, Frank, I missed it.
Go, team!

6.    Show confidence:
No need to preface a statement with: “I believe” and “I think.”   If you’re writing it, you think it. Lose insecure, irresolute use of words such as would, might, may.

7.    Including, for example, for instance – and etc., and others.  “Includes” means the list is NOT exhaustive, that it IS a sample.  So to say, the list includes A, B, C, etc., is redundant.

8.    NONE is singular.  None of us IS perfect.  None of the horses was there.

9.    However. “However” should not start a sentence; plant it inside.  “She sat on the front row.  The rule, however, was for girls to move back.”

10.    Because.  No comma before the word “because.”  Commander Perry failed to reach the Antarctic in by May because the ship was frozen in port.

About Nancy Lovell

Nancy Lovell is a partner in Lovell-Fairchild Communications, a PR and marketing firm.  For 12 years she was on her own, a freelancer writing “anything I could follow up with an invoice”–brochures, scripts, editorials, article.  And before that with Tracy-Locke, a Dallas-based ad agency.  In college she majored in advertising/PR and got a minor in English because one of the courses was on “Jane Eyre,” which she’d already read six times.

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One response to “SEVEN WAYS TO SHARPEN A SENTENCE

  1. Nancy, I know you get tired of hearing it, but I wouldn’t be an author were it not for you. (If I had time I could make that a stronger sentence!)

    Today, communication channels are available to everyone but few know how to maximize the opportunity. Clear writing is essential to success in business and relationships. THANK YOU for your insights on how to achieve clarity and be heard.

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