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Write better sentences with Joe Moran

Joe Moran’s First You Write a Sentence. suggests an exercise to help you learn to write better sentences.

Try this exercise

Learn from the artistry of others when you try this exercise described by Moran.

Find a sentence you like and look at it for a distressingly long time, until you start to see past its sense into its shape. As with a painting, the trick is not to exhume some buried symbolism or esoteric meaning, but only to make time to look. Take the sentence apart and reverse-engineer it, the way computer programmers do when they dismantle software to see if they can copy it without infringing the rights. Turn its shape into a dough-cutter for your own sentences. Learn to love the feel of sentences, the arcs of anticipation and suspense, the balancing phrases, the wholesome little snap of the full stop.

My analysis

I’m not a good literary analyst. I often felt like the “weak link” in the writers group that helped me give birth to Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients. However, I’ll share my analysis to keep you from feeling intimidated by the exercise.

Moran’s paragraph is striking for its use of metaphors. I especially like “Turn its shape into a dough-cutter for your own sentences.” That’s a nice short sentence—and I love short sentences.

However, my love of short sentences suggests that perhaps I should look at Moran’s work for how to use long sentences gracefully. The last sentence of his paragraph has 24 words, yet it flows easily. That may be partly because the sentence is not a mishmash of dependent clauses. I can read about each of the loves—”the feel of sentences, the arcs of anticipation and suspense, the balancing phrases, the wholesome little snap of the full stop”—without worrying about which other part of the sentence they relate to. It also uses some unusual word combinations. How often have you thought about the “feel” of a sentence? “The wholesome little snap of the full stop” made me smile.

Try it, you may like it

The next time you see a sentence that you like, pause. Copy it for later analysis, or, if you have the time, analyze it on the spot.

If you learn something from this exercise, I’d love to hear about it.

Disclosure:  If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I provide links to books only when I believe they have value for my readers.

4 great tips for writing sentences

Joe Moran’s First You Write a Sentence has some great sentences about sentences.

Here’s a sampling of them, sorted by the lesson they suggest.

4 tips for writing good sentences

1. Slow down

Moran writes:

Most of us, when we write, march too quickly on to the next sentence. To write intelligibly is hard enough, so be sure you have done that first. Fix your sights on making one sane, sound, serviceable sentence. As a farmer must do, hold your nerve and resist the impulse to put your energies into cash crops with quick returns. Have the confidence to leave fields fallow, to wait patiently for the grain to grow and to bear with the dry seasons.

What a great analogy with farming!

I don’t recommend pausing after every sentence. After all, too many people struggle to complete a first draft. But, at some point, you should pause to review what you have written. Don’t hesitate to throw it out and start over if it doesn’t work. Your second draft is bound to benefit from the ideas “marinating” in your head.

2. Don’t tax your reader’s memory

“A sentence must stick in the mind. It has to be literally memorable, never so intricate that it cannot be absorbed all at once,” says Moran.

He also says:

The limit of a spoken sentence is the breath capacity of our lungs. The limit of a written one is the memory capacity of our brains. The full stop at the end of a sentence sets the limit. By the time it arrives, you must still be able to recall the sentence’s beginning. If you can’t keep it all in your head, then maybe those words weren’t meant to be together.

“Maybe those words weren’t meant to be together” agrees with my assessment of many complex, long sentences that I read in the fields of investment and wealth management.

I like using the idea of “memory capacity” to explain why many long sentences don’t work. I think that some of my clients might understand that better than my babbling about “too many dependent clauses.”

Complex sentences and paragraphs are also a problem when key information is unintentionally omitted. As Moran says, “A readers should not be asked to do the equivalent of lining up all the screws and dowels and puzzling over the instructions, only to find that the Allen key is missing.” Ooh, there’s another analogy that makes me smile.

3. Give gifts

Moran says that writing should be “an act of generosity, a gift from writer to reader.” So, follow the rules of good gift giving. For starters, “the gift should never feel like more trouble than it is worth.” Moreover, “the gift of knowledge that a sentence brings should never have to be bought, as it often is, with the reader’s boredom or confusion.”

Despite Moran’s suggestions, confusion abounds in many examples of financial writing. That’s no gift.

4. Move up and down the ladder

Moran uses S.I. Hayakawa’s idea of a ladder of abstraction. Concrete nouns like “chair” and “wall” are on the lowest rung. Abstract nouns—nouns like “truth” or “knowledge”—are on the top rung.

Moran says:

Writing stuck on one rung of the ladder of abstraction is too monotone. Arguments that use only abstract nouns, like truth and power and knowledge, are hard to care about because writing that sidesteps the senses is dull. Sentimental or pious writing also leans on abstractions, replacing difficult feelings with consoling simplifications. When words are too general, they paint inadequate pictures. But writing that describes only the feelable things in front of our faces is also dull, because it does not say why those things should matter to someone else. Writing stuck on the ladder’s middle rungs is worst of all, because here sit words with an illusory concreteness. Keep shinning up and down the ladder, though, and the reader gets the gist in different ways. She grasps big ideas through concrete things, and concrete things through big ideas. The tangible ignites the elusive and both of them shine brighter.

Moran himself seems to have a flair for “shinning up and down the ladder.”

 

I had to return this book to the library before finishing it. I’m definitely re-reserving it. It’s worth reading all the way through.

 

Disclosure:  If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I provide links to books only when I believe they have value for my readers.

One idea to a sentence

“One idea to a sentence” is the title of a section in Theodore Bernstein’s The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. It’s also a darned good idea for financial writers.

Bernstein advises this approach for “those kinds of writing in which instant clarity and swift reading, which are other ways of saying quick comprehension, are dominant desiderata.”

Research favors shorter average sentence length

Bernstein cites research showing that articles with a shorter average sentence length are more easily understood.

He explains:

…in other words, a few sentences of three or four words offset some rather long sentences and pulled the average down. Still, although there were some rather long sentences, there were no complicated ones.

This analysis led to the one-idea-per-sentence approach. That’s partly because “Confining a sentence to a single thought will usually reduce the number of words.”

If the folks whose work I edit took this approach, I would spend less time breaking long sentences into two or even three sentences. This kind of editing is an easy way to boost readers’ comprehension.

No splinters, please

Of course, I must be careful not to create what Bernstein calls a “splinter.” Sometimes, as Bernstein says, “a writer or an editor ineptly splits a long sentence, then finds himself holding a meaningless splinter like this: ‘The charge came after an assertion by District Attorney Hogan.’ “ This is part of what writing guru Bryan Garner means when he calls for “no brevity without substance.” I think he and Bernstein have similar philosophies about the characteristics of good sentences.

I also tend to favor one idea per blog post. But that’s a topic for another day.

 

Disclosure:  If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I provide links to books only when I believe they have value for my readers.

The photo in the upper left has is courtesy of Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha [CC BY-SA]