How to stop cramming and start cutting
We do it because there is so much perspective to inject.
We do it because we’re convinced nobody reads past the first graf.
We do it because we think the extra clause or phrase or observation will push our story onto A-1.
We do it even when we know better.
We make our sentences too long.
The most common writing misjudgment we make as reporters and editors is the inflated sentence. We do it as though the material we hide in dependent clauses and between dashes doesn’t really count as an obstacle.
Every day we routinely run stories with words-per-sentence averages in the high 20s or worse. It’s not that these stories are flawed grammatically; it’s that getting through them requires too much work. The reader tires of the effort and goes elsewhere. And the shame is, you could have kept him around with just one more read of your copy and just a bit more self discipline.
One way to spot this problem is by looking for those damned dashes.
When God created dashes for newspaper writing, he did it to allow you a quick, holy-shit observation–to slam on the brakes for an instant. We too often break that commandment. We use dashes to cram in contextual material that we can’t fit into a more logical place. We also misuse dashes in place of commas, calling more attention to a conventional clause–like this one–than was warranted.
Check out the first five grafs of a recent front-page feature from my newspaper and focus on the language between the dashes, which is underlined:
In her flowing crimson cape, thigh-high leather boots and metal-studded red leather bustier, Cardinal is a bow-and-arrow-toting femme fatale.
But not only is Cardinal not real–she’s a character in the popular computer game “Ultima Online”–she’s not really female. Cardinal is the alter-ego of Kenn Gold, a 33-year-old former Army sergeant with thorny green-and-black tattoos covering both of his muscular arms.
As one of the thousands of online gamers who play characters of the opposite gender, Gold created Cardinal as a tactical move: Female characters generally get treated better in the male-dominated world of virtual adventuring. Yet he was unprepared for the shock of seeing the world through a woman’s eyes.
“I can’t even begin to tell you how funny it is to watch guys trip all over themselves and be dumb,” Gold said. “It’s very amusing to see them try to be really sophisticated and cool, when they’re turning out to be just the opposite.”
Changing genders has long been a piece of online role-playing games–part juvenile mischievousness, part theatrical posing and part psychological release. But as the genre explodes–online games now attract hundreds of thousands of players–it’s prompted a blossoming of cross-gender experimentation and created sexually amorphous virtual worlds that some revel in and others curse.
The first and third times the story used dashes (in the second and fifth grafs), it was good-naturedly trying to keep you on track. But the material created overload: The first sentence that used a dash had 10 words within the dashes and 11 words outside them. The third time the story used dashes, it expanded a 26-word sentence to a pudgy 35 words.
The second (middle) time the story used dashes was technically more acceptable. But that point soon became moot because the next sentence also employed dashed material. It created enough of an imposition to make me wonder: What am I supposed to be concentrating on? The sentence I was reading or the interjection?
The problem here was that the story tackled a subculture within a subculture. That’s great but challenging territory; you have to bring the reader along more deliberately.
Commas can be another warning sign, although some writers can mix and match three or four clauses within a sentence beautifully. (Stay tuned for a cool example at the end of today’s screed.)Too, often, though, that much complexity breaks down the sentence. Here’s an extreme example that everyone can deny he or she has ever duplicated, but which was published in the L.A. Times nonetheless. It’s from the top section of a June 10 profile of a “Sopranos” cast member. It employed seven clauses (i.e. six commas) and a parenthetical reference to boot:
Like the Academy Award-winning Jolie, De Matteo, who stars as Christopher’s (Michael Imperioli) Mafioso moll, Adriana, in HBO’s “The Sopranos,” came out of nowhere, with an attitude that insists she belongs in this business, but the confidence not to care if she’s not accepted.
We know, editors and reporters alike, that it is often the editors who are responsible for more routine cramming. Consider this 56-word lead, a classic attempt to cover all the bases that got the story thrown out at home:
The issue of crime took center stage in the race for mayor of Los Angeles on Thursday, a day of nasty charges and countercharges that emphasized both the philosophical differences between City Atty. James K. Hahn and former legislator Antonio Villaraigosa and the importance both their campaigns attach to the politically volatile issue of public safety.
Or this 48-word lead from the ’96 Democratic convention, which to this day infuriates one of my colleagues, who called it to my attention last week:
CHICAGO–Seeking to strengthen their hold over the nation’s political center, Democrats opened their national convention Monday with emotional appeals from former Ronald Reagan aide James S. Brady and wheelchair-bound actor Christopher Reeve that cast President Clinton as a leader who reaches across party lines to help ordinary Americans.
Most of the time, adjustment in sentence length can be as simple as recognizing that you have stretched one sentence beyond its capacity, and then constructing a second sentence.
The survey found that, when volunteers called LAPD stations to ask–in Spanish, Korean, Mandarin, Thai and Japanese–how to file a police complaint, barely a third of callers were provided with appropriate translators.
The survey tested the LAPD’s ability to respond to callers who spoke Spanish, Korean, Mandarin, Thai or Japanese. It said when volunteers called police stations to ask how to file a police complaint, barely a third were connected with appropriate translators.
The price of clarity was seven additional words. Here’s another everyday example:
Prompted by Vatican objections to what were seen as loopholes in cooperative agreements with former non-Catholic hospitals, the new ethical and religious directives put sterilization, including tubal ligation, on the same footing with abortion and euthanasia, both of which have long been condemned by the church.
The ethical and religious directives were prompted by Vatican objections to what were seen as loopholes in cooperative agreements with the many non-Catholic hospitals that have been purchased by Catholic health care chains.
The rules put sterilization, including tubal ligation, on the same footing with abortion and euthanasia, both of which have long been condemned by the church.
The price of clarity was 12 additional words (explaining what would make a hospital a “non-Catholic” hospital) and an extra line to create a second graf.
Simplifying the pace of our language sometimes involves difficult trade-offs, but we need to think about it more. The more complex your subject, the more deliberate you need to be about the length of your sentences and the amount of clauses within each one. To use the baseball metaphor, become the hitter with two strikes who chokes up an inch on the bat and takes a shorter, more controlled swing. Save your longer sentences for the easier concepts. Here are a trio of examples of how you can sound when you bring your words-per-sentence average down:
18.8 words per sentence
From the top of Mark Barabak’s analysis of demographic change and the shrinking political power of African Americans in California.
OAKLAND–In the heart of downtown, at the corner of 14th and Clay, stands the Elihu Harris state office building, a high-rise monument to the city’s former Sacramento representative and mayor.
On the 22nd floor of the stone-and-glass tower sits the office of Wilma Chan, the freshman lawmaker who helped thwart Harris’ bid to reclaim his old Assembly seat in November.
Harris is black, a symbol of California’s political past. Chan is Asian American and an embodiment of California’s future–a political future that looks increasing bleak for African Americans.
At a time when Latino power is exploding across the state and a swelling Asian population is gaining clout, blacks are losing political ground from Sacramento to South-Central Los Angeles.
Almost 20 years ago, California nearly elected the nation’s first black governor. Today, there are just four blacks serving in the 80-member Assembly–the same as the number of Latino Republicans. There are only two African Americans in the 40-member state Senate. Not a single black legislator serves a district north of Los Angeles’ Sunset Boulevard.
Few are ready to declare blacks endangered as a political species in California–not when African Americans remain so vital to the Democratic Party.
But many are alarmed by the dramatic erosion of black clout. They fear that the political system will grow less responsive to the state’s roughly 2.5 million African Americans and fret that African Americans, in turn, will grow increasingly alienated from the political system.
“You have a population that feels very disenfranchised to begin with,” said Darry Sragow, a Democratic. strategist. “And this… is a trend that’s getting worse, not better.”
Much of the decline stems from sweeping shifts in population. Here, truly, demography is political destiny.
California’s black population stayed about the same over the past decade, the last census showed, while the number of Latinos and Asian/Pacific Islanders ….
The relatively short sentences gave the piece a feeling of exactness. It helped me stay on track. And yet there was a range. The shortest sentence was 9 words. The longest was 34. The rhythm looked like this:
There were five sentences in the 30s, three in the 20s, six in the 10-19 range and one below 10. There was plenty of room for clauses (and dashes) but only when they were truly needed.
Mark explains how he compensated for complexity with simplicity:
The lead was one of those metaphors that was like a gift from God. I mean, what better way to explain a story about the shifting of power between minority groups: here’s a literal stone monument to a guy who served as the city’s mayor and Sacramento representative for 12 years, who has a building named after him, and sitting in that building is the woman, an Asian-American, who thwarted his political career. It was just too perfect an illustration not to use. But I knew I had to get to the point quickly. I felt I just had so much information to cram in, there wasn’t the luxury of a lot of long sentences or fancy footwork.
Also, the nature of the story was more fact-based than, say, narrative or colorful. To me the most stunning thing was the numbers, which are incontrovertible. (And believe me, writing about something as sensitive as race, I was conscious of being absolutely certain I could back up some rather sweeping statements.)
So I really pared it back, to distill it to the bare essence. It was one of those stories where it was almost my job to garner the facts, then stand back and lay it out, without a lot of ruffles and flourishes.
I knew I wanted to start out with the building and what that said, but I left a lot of color out: little things like the panoramic view of the port and the Victorian houses in West Oakland, all visible from Wilma Chan’s office. I had stuff like that in early drafts, but it just seemed to clutter things up.
I gave myself the first two grafs to basically set the scene and left it pretty unadorned, throwing in just a bit of description, like the 22nd floor instead of “the top” floor, and “stone-and-glass” instead of stuff like all the architectural detail I got from walking around the building taking copious notes and even going to the architecture-design firm’s website. (”Landscape and streetscape plans have been designed to reinforce continuous linearity of the primary axes… and to extend the project into its surroundings.”)
By the third graf, I figured it was time to get to the point, or at least strongly signal what the point was about. I sort of split the nut between the 3rd and 4th grafs, making the point about how Harris and Chan embody the essential point of the story (Blacks on the way out, other minority groups on the way in), then underlining it in the fourth graf and offering a bit of breadth (losing political ground from Sacramento to South-Central L.A.).
Then the first batch of stats. Again, so many facts to cram, so little space!
I applied a lot of the principles I’ve picked up from “Nuts & Bolts,” and from teaching several writing workshops this year for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn., which has forced me to think harder than I ever have about newswriting. Rule No. 1 in all this is that you have to really have a command of the material before you sit down and write. And after 50-odd interviews (only nine of whom I quoted, but that’s a whole other discussion) and reams and reams of research, I felt on really solid ground once I sat down to write.
13.3 words per sentence
Rene Tawa had a similar concern when she undertook a feature story about an ailing concentration-camp survivor and his musical relationship with a group of school kids. We’ve all had this dilemma: You come upon a poignant story and feel compelled to find emotional language to compliment it. Years go by and it finally dawns on you that the trick here is to show the beauty, not tell it.
Rene realized she had “a very delicate balancing act,” and vowed to keep her syntax from overwhelming the story. She did not consciously tell herself to keep her sentences short, but when you read these excerpts you’ll see what happened: (1) devotion to simplicity leads to (2) shorter sentences which leads to (3) a more controlled, and often a more powerful voice. Here’s the first graf, foreshadowing the tale:
Another night lost to searing back pain. Henry Rosmarin, 75, managed only three hours of sleep. How will he muster the breath for these kids this morning? The teenagers have burst into his life at a time in which he expects no joy, in which days are tracked by doctors’ appointments. He could not go back to their classroom and wheeze a few token bars from his harmonica–his instrument still. Four months earlier, he had told the students about a cold night in Nazi Germany, when he was their age. On that evening, during the Holocaust, a harmonica saved his life. On this spring morning, he has a piece that he must play for the kids, his means of passing on what he knows.
Later, the middle of the story takes us to Henry’s survival and his relationship with music:
The commandant, who heard that Henry played the harmonica, was in the mood for a command performance. From an easy chair, he tossed Henry his harmonica, a glass of schnapps or something in his other hand, a German shepherd by his side. “What should it be, commandant?” Henry ventured and then wanted to snatch the words back. What if the commandant requested something he didn’t know? Why hadn’t he launched into something simple, a German march or “Lili Marleen,” a song he knew the Germans loved? “Play something from Schubert, you miserable dog,” the commandant snapped. Schubert was difficult to play. Henry would try Schubert’s “Serenade” and pray that he would remember every note.
What were the odds, Henry marvels now, that the commandant would love the harmonica and love the same composer that Henry did? When Henry finished playing, the commandant said nothing. But he threw a loaf of bread at Henry and had him reassigned to kitchen duty. The assignment included playing dinner music in the guards’ mess hall. In his new job, Henry could sneak pieces of steak or a swallow of pudding. He put on weight that strengthened him for the days ahead.
Then, later, we’re told how Henry came to find these children:
Ten years ago, he retired and hooked up with Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, as a volunteer and part-time staff member in the research department. The Los Angeles-based foundation is chronicling the accounts of survivors and other eyewitnesses of the Holocaust in the largest undertaking of its kind.
Through the foundation, Henry took on more speaking engagements, and he found himself leaning on his harmonica again. “To really tell the story [with music],” he says, “you transform yourself in time. . . . Just by playing a little harmonica, I move [people] somehow. I found out I could do this–something I love most–to touch people. It became part of my life, especially when I could move a beast like the commandant.” Sometimes, people tell him of survivors who remember a whisper of harmonica music from the officers’ quarters, a stolen fragment of beauty. Henry likes to think that they heard him, that he played for the prisoners, too.
12.8 words per sentence
Less dramatic features can also benefit. Here is a passage from a Mike Anton profile:
He is among the last of his breed, a survivor who has hung on to a slice of Orange County’s past, even as bulldozers have carved the future out from under him.
He looks out at what he has now: 500 leased acres, an island of rolling green hills amid a sea of rooftops less than a mile from a county landfill.
“You’ve got to be crazy . . . to do this,” says Fred Love, one of Orange County’s last ranchers. “But it’s something that just gets in your blood.”
At 57, Love is a cattleman in a place where cows once outnumbered people on vast Spanish land grants. It is now a place where the ranch exists mostly in the imagination, a name given to developments by marketing pros who sell their lots like cuts of steak wrapped in cellophane.
In 1959, more than 100,000 cattle still roamed Orange County. The ranching….
The middle offers us a scene:
He wades into a corral, and his boots disappear in the muck. He moves toward the quarter horse that was to be inseminated. Two years ago, this horse aborted. Last year, she had an infection that prevented her from breeding. It is time to try again.
Love inches closer, slogging through the mud with that left knee that got caught by a calf a decade ago and has never been the same.
The horse runs, showering him with mud.
“I came to get you, not chase you,” Love shouts.
He tries again and is peppered some more. His Wranglers are coated in mud. His hat and face are flecked with gray.
The quality that Mark’s news feature and Rene’s and Mike’s pure features shared was that both writers knew exactly what they wanted to say. When you use shorter sentences, it forces you to think ahead, to plot the flow better. By limiting the capacity of your sentences, you make yourself come to grips with the language. You’re less likely to cram–and I’m less likely to grow impatient and quit reading.
Take all this with a grain of salt. I’m not here to set a words-per-sentence limit. I just think many of you out there are writing or editing sentences that are 10% to 20% fatter than they ought to be. If you’d be tougher on yourself about how many clauses you can cram into a sentence, and about breaking one monster sentence into two, your stories would read faster, shorter. Readers would have an easier time getting all the way through them. Remember that 15 extra minutes a day you promised yourself you’d spend getting better? (See “The 15-Minute Workout,” posted April 30, in the “Nuts & Bolts Archives.”) This week why not devote your 15 minutes a day to one more self-edit simply on sentence length?
As you discipline yourself, you’ll make a discovery: The better you get at figuring when to cut your sentences, the better you get at discovering those rarer circumstances when you can stretch out. You’ll improve your mechanical skills. Your ear will refine its appreciation for the rhythm of clauses, and for the need to establish a contextual base in the story before you elongate your phrases.
I’ll give you an extreme (and for me humbling) example, written by a colleague, Terry McDermott. A couple years ago I was editing a feature story of his and I ran across a 142-word sentence. My accomplishment was reducing it to only 135 words. Even though the sentence seemed to work, I was ashamed: Here I was, editing a newsletter in my spare time that preached restraint!
Guiltily, I asked Terry to explain what the hell he was doing. The structural analysis that follows shows you how important it is for writers to develop a sophisticated structural vocabulary like Terry’s so they can argue successfully with their editors when they decide to try to stretch the form.
First, here’s the sentence in question, as published. It comes from a daily story about a cheesy attempt to sell corporate sponsorship rights to the famed “Hollywood” sign in the hills above L.A. All you have to know about the context is that the pitchwoman was aging actress Debbie Reynolds, that the sentence came fairly high in the story, and that Terry had already established a tone of irreverence:
So it might have happened anywhere–anywhere, at least, where a celebrity who is, as Reynolds immodestly put it, “on the down side of the wheel,” would be willing to perch on a pillow on a tall chair on a lip of land high on a hill above the Hollywood Reservoir and conduct what is known in the business as a satellite media tour and serial interviews with 22 television and radio stations scattered from here to hereafter, and in the course of those 22 interviews smile and make jokes about everything from multiple marriages to her makeup and then ask for some well-meaning corporation to come forward with good will in one hand and a check for $100,000 in the other and donate both to maintain a sign that doesn’t need to be maintained.
Let’s let Terry tell the rest of it:
I get this note from Baker.
Could you, he asks, “write something . . . to explain how/why a guy writes a 100-word sentence…in the context of how/why to break rules.”
Typical editor talk, huh?
Rules, he says.
What rules? I want to know. Writing rules exist purely to shield people from their insecurities. They’re fallback positions.
I have only one rule about sentences: Do they work?
Sentences are like publishers’ brains: size doesn’t matter. I’ve written lots of sentences of lots of lengths. This one was nowhere near the longest. I once wrote a 199-word lead. Without a verb.
Obviously, the sentence had a lot of work to do. Let’s take a look at it. First, though, allow me a bit of self-inoculation. Spending any amount of energy analyzing something as ridiculous as this story is pretty ridiculous in and of itself. But I think it illustrates some broader concepts, so, onward.
The sentence has seven distinct sections, each with its own task:
1) So it might have happened anywhere
2) –anywhere, at least, where a celebrity who is, as Reynolds immodestly put it, “on the down side of the wheel,”
3) would be willing to perch on a pillow on a tall chair on a lip of land high on a hill above the Hollywood Reservoir
4) and conduct what is known in the business as a satellite media tour and serial interviews with 22 television and radio stations scattered from here to hereafter,
5) and in the course of those 22 interviews smile and make jokes about everything from multiple marriages to her makeup
6) and then ask for some well-meaning corporation to come forward with good will in one hand and a check for $100,000 in the other and donate both
7) to maintain a sign that doesn’t need to be maintained.
Section 1 is a transition and, by repeating an earlier phrase, builds recognition in the reader that story is at least as much about context as about facts, a point that will be made at the end of the story.
Section 2 hints at the nature of celebrity culture and adds some lightness.
Section 3 is purely textural.
Section 4 is a central fact of the story.
Section 5 is more self-deprecating Debbie Reynolds humor.
Section 6 is the news of the story, what otherwise might be called the lead.
Section 7 is foreshadowing and is supposed to raise questions, and hence some small suspense.
Let’s say you wanted to include all that information but didn’t want a 135-word sentence. You could write seven separate sentences or any combination thereof. You could do it completely straight:
Debbie Reynolds on Thursday solicited a $100,000 donation to pay for maintenance of the world-famous Hollywood sign in the Hollywood Hills. And so on.
This would have made the story longer and slower, I think. And let’s face it, this story is lighter than air. It doesn’t deserve to be longer and slower. It’s silly. And to me it deals with a specific sort of media silliness that is emblematic of L.A. celebrity culture. I wanted to make those points, to place the story in that context, but not suck any thumbs while doing so.
So I took a lighter approach I thought matched the content. The 135-word sentence is a part of that. A run-on sentence of that length is silly on the face of it and I think in some small way communicates its silliness to the reader.
That was my motive. What about the means? Does the sentence meet my one rule? Does it work?
To me, working means: First, does it make sense; second, can you read it. Sense is largely derived from grammar and vocabulary. Does it track? Could you diagram it? Does it mean what it intends to mean? I think so.
The second test, can you read it, is trickier. I read my sentences aloud to myself and the most important thing I look for is whether you can breathe while reading them. Sentences, long or short, have to have places for readers to breathe. Subscribers are precious, remember, we don’t want them choking to death on our stories.
You give sentences breathing room by controlling rhythm with word length and punctuation. Lots of polysyllabic words strung together could wipe out a whole nursing home. On the other hand, stings of monosyllables provide rest stops.
Look at Section 3.
“. . . would be willing to perch on a pillow on a tall chair on a lip of land high on a hill above the Hollywood Reservoir . . .”
There’s one stretch in there of 13 consecutive one-syllable words. Overall, 95 of the 135 words are monosyllables.
Similarly, lots of clauses strung together without any punctuating stop signs are tough to read. For example, the one real hitch in the sentence comes with the second “and” in Section 4. As written, that “and” was a comma. Somebody in the editing chain thought they’d help by changing it. They added a word. In so doing, a stop sign was knocked down with predictable results:
Uncontrolled intersection. Head-on crash. Bam. Another dead reader.
Please, protect your readers. Give them room to breathe.
RECOMMENDED READING #1: Stephen King’s “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,” is now in paperback ($10.46 at amazon.com) and you could not find more wisdom for your buck. It’s half about King’s evolution as a writer and half his day-to-day work and attitudinal habits. He’s talking about fiction but you can glean gobs of insight for journalism simply from King’s unvarnished work ethic.
Listen to him describe the process of re-reading a manuscript:
The top part of my mind is concentrating on story and toolbox concerns: knocking out pronouns with unclear antecedents (I hate and mistrust pronouns, every one of them as slippery as a fly-by-night personal-injury lawyer), adding clarifying phrases where they seem necessary, and of course, deleting all the adverbs I can bear to part with (never all of them, never enough).
Underneath, however, I’m asking myself the Big Questions. The biggest: Is this story coherent? And if it is, what will turn coherence into a song? What are the recurring elements? Do they entwine and make a theme? I’m asking myself, “What’s it all about, Stevie?” in other words, and what I can do to make those underlying concerns ever clearer.