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Structure

October 9, 2007

Here’s some speaking advice to get you hitting the target;

Sentences can only do one thing at a time.

Have you ever heard a four-year-old run out of breath before she can finish her thought? I edit a lot of sentences that work the same way. You need a noun, you need a verb, you might need an object. Give some serious thought to stopping right there.

Sentences are building blocks, not bungee cords; they’re not meant to be stretched to the limit. I’m not saying you necessarily want a Hemingway-esque series of clipped short sentences, but most writers benefit from dividing their longest sentences into shorter, more muscular ones.

Paragraphs can only do one thing at a time.

A paragraph supports a single idea. Construct complex arguments by combining simple ideas that follow logically. Every time you address a new idea, add a line break. Short paragraphs are the most readable; few should be more than three or four sentences long. This is more important if you’re writing for the Web.

Look closely at -ing

Nouns ending in -ing are fine. (Strong writing, IT consulting, great fishing.) But constructions like “I am running,” “a forum for building consensus,” or “The new team will be managing” are inherently weak. Rewrite them to “I run,” “a forum to build consensus,” and “the team will manage.” You’re on the right track when the rewrite has fewer words (see below).

(If for some insane reason you want to get all geeky about this, you can read the Wikipedia article on gerunds and present participles. But you don’t have to know the underlying grammatical rules to make this work. Rewrite -ing when you can, and your writing will grow muscles you didn’t know it had.)

Omit unnecessary words.

I know we all heard this in high school, but we weren’t listening. (Mostly because it’s hard.) It’s doubly hard when you’re editing your own writing—we put all that work into getting words onto the page, and by god we need a damned good reason to get rid of them.

Here’s your damned good reason: extra words drain life from your work. The fewer words used to express an idea, the more punch it has. Therefore:

Summer months
Regional level
The entire country
On a daily basis (usually best rewritten to “every day”)
She knew that it was good.
Very
(I just caught one above: four-year-old little girl)

You can nearly always improve sentences by rewriting them in fewer words.

Reframe 90% of the passive voice.

French speakers consider an elegantly managed passive voice to be the height of refinement. But here in the good old U.S. (or Australia, Great Britain, etc.), we value action. We do things is inherently more interesting than Things are done to us. Passive voice muddies your writing; when the actor is hidden, the action makes less sense.

This is in fact writing advice from the fabulous remarkable communication blog. If you can put these things into action when you speak you will be so concise you will knock people’s socks off. Having a calm and structured communication strategy, if used right, can overcome nerves and leave a forceful impression in people’s minds after you have left. And this, my friends, is the objective.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 10, 2007 3:12 am

    Brilliant!

  2. October 10, 2007 6:57 am

    Yes, you really are!

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