“The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.” William Zinsser – On Writing Well (1990) and… “to write clean English you must examine every word you put on paper.”
This is the second part of a series on the use of the sentence, please click here to read the first part.
Every writer enhances their work or demonstrates their personal style by adding extra phrases, sayings etc. In crafting sentences, it is all too easy to become too expressive, pad, explain, and over indulge. Thus writers do at times fail to get to the point or meander along in a way the reader fails to understand the purpose of the piece.
One of the first tasks of editing your own work is to strip it down to the bare bones. Take it, then make sure it only says only what it should, before building it back up again. You shouldn’t be afraid of the knife.
Keep Sentences Short, Sweet and Simple?
Website English For Students recommends keeping sentences short to aid understanding. It recommends keeping the “average sentence length 15 to 20 words.” They also argue that “muddle is more likely in a long sentence.”
The prospects to create muddle certainly exist in longer sentences. But muddle can exist elsewhere too. For example: the reader can also be confused by a poorly constructed paragraph made purely of short sentences that displays muddled thinking.
Writers owe it to their readers to produce clear, simple, and easily understood writing. Corinne Rodrigues from Everyday Gyaan believes it is necessary to “keep readers focused on your message by writing short sentences. Shorter sentences tend to have more impact.” Sharing, of course, a belief in the 15-20 word rule.
While editing, should we look for “and,” “but,” “however,” or “yet” then seek to split the sentence into two parts? Should sentences consist of, at most, two or three phrases separated by commas? The short sentence can be somewhat like a unicycle, simple to conceive, less than simple to use. Personally, I have been suspicious of standardised rules and feel a need to break out, be adventurous, be a rebel, be creative and do something different. I agree rules and guides do serve a purpose, however, as they are the guide to good writing.
I am all in favour of using plain English, it should be central to sentence construction. Is it true that all words with three or more syllables are hard to understand? The word “understand,” for example, is very well known. Synonyms like, “know,” “find out,” “grasp,” or “realise,” don’t have exactly the same meaning and lack precision.
Here are a few complex words with a simpler, alternative:
- Advantageous — helpful.
- Commensurate — equal.
- Endeavour — try.
- Expeditious — fast.
- Leverage — use.
- Remuneration — wages.
Writers may use some words of equal length, such as “necessary,” “substitute,” or “alternative” which are very easily understood. The opposite are short words that are not a part of normal everyday use, some examples are shown:
- Bilk – to cheat somebody.
- Covet – to wish, long, or crave for.
- Dour – poor sense of humour.
- Edict – a dictatorial proclamation.
- Inane – having little intelligence.
- Vilify – spreading negative of hateful information.
One aim of plain English is using words which allow readers (of average intelligence) to realise what is said. For example avoiding those Latin phrases that predominate the legal profession, or avoid technical phrases that every other profession claim as their own are an essential part of plain English.
Making a Sentence Effective
There is more to a sentence than merely conveying the heart of the message. Each should do so with skill and in a way that invokes the interest of the reader. One reason why I concluded that it is possible to have longer sentences, that convey their message simply and effectively, free from clutter, yet show off the creative flair of their writer.
Ultimately it is a combination of long and short sentences that make a piece interesting. Each sentence must be effective on its own and must combine well with the other sentences surrounding it, they must flow or build an idea. Short and long sentences are both required for writing to become effective.
Its not just the message that makes a sentence effective, how its told, the intonations, etc. all combine to tell the story. Each sentence should be clutter free and be stripped down to its cleanest components. Writers must examine every word to ensure compliance as Zinsser suggests. We must be able to identify the kernel or core element and know whether a sentence needs to be built further from there some need much explanation, while others use that alone.
The kernel is defined as “the central or most important part of something.” Often we communicate through the central idea, or proposition, it doesn’t need any expansion. See the following:
- Clouds darkened the sky.
- The day was windy.
- He set to work.
Not every idea, however, can be discussed through the central proposition alone. Professor Brooks Landon of the University of Iowa states “growth starts with… a kernel sentence, the initial building block to which we will add information.” Its at the heart of what should be said, it can do an effective job on its own and frequently does, it provides an opportunity to show the nub of the idea, the brick, which may become the foundation for something else to be added.
As we know a sentence is formed of one, or many words. William Wallace’s cry of “Freedoooom!” in Braveheart when urging his troops into battle is a great one word sentence, it is actually multi-dimensional, the battle cry, the basic human desire, and the opening of possibilities.
Must we always be minimalist with sentence structure? I think not. Many basic concepts cannot be explained in 15 to 20 words, causing the sentence to grow. Flexibility is a part of the art of writing. The option to grow a sentence, or keep to the base idea are all choices to make.