Saturday, June 30, 2007

Taboo #2: You may not end a sentence with a preposition--ha!

Here's the second RULE OF GRAMMAR you learned in English Composition class that is doing you no good as an effective writer.

If you had an English Composition teacher like mine, you were told not to end sentences with prepositions. You remember prepositions, right? Those little words that connect a noun or pronoun to another word--at, in, on, by, to, of, with, from, about under, between. Okay, enough with the grammar lesson.

To not end a sentence with a preposition means we must rewrite the sentence to reposition the preposition. And that will almost always lead to awkwardness. For today's reader, awkwardness is an attention killer.

So, writing coaches are unmasking this taboo for the albatross that it is. And they have one of history's greatest communicators on their side. Winston Churchill knew the importance of being clear, and in a speech ended a sentence with a preposition.

After his oration, the media attacked him. Churchill shot back: "This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put."

I must insert a note here, an exception, if you will. To write or speak such things as, "Where do you live at?" or "Where do you work at?" is never acceptable. It's just bad grammar. "Where do you work?" and "Where do you live?" will always be correct and acceptable.

Occasionally, a preposition is a fine thing to end a sentence with. (Did you catch that?) This is especially true when it is a much more natural, much more conversational way to write than the awkward alternative of writing around it.

Done sparingly, most readers will never notice you ended a sentence with a preposition. What they will notice is your message. And that's every writer's goal.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Lesson 3: One main idea in a sentence

In previous posts, I shared fundamentals of good clear writing. Lesson 1 was to write how you talk. Lesson 2 was to use small, familiar words. (Check them out if it's been a while since you reviewed these.)

Today is about keeping your reader engaged through sentence length.

When you were in school, your English composition teacher taught you about compound sentences, chastised you for run on sentences, circled problems with subject and verb agreement, and drilled you on rules for adding commas to keep long sentences grammatically correct.

No wonder you're confused.

Today, one of the best things you can do for clear, concise writing is to forget what your English Composition teacher taught you and stick to one main idea per sentence. What does that mean exactly?

Okay, let's review. A proper English sentence is composed of a subject, a verb, and an object. Right? (Trust me, it is.)

That's what makes up one main idea. One subject, one verb, one object.

So how long (or short) can a sentence be? Here's the guideline: 15 to 20 words per sentence. That's all you need.


Should every sentence be 17.5 words long? No. That would put your reader to sleep. That would be boring writing.

The craft of writing involves varying your sentence length and mixing it up. Write a long sentence, followed by a short sentence. I call this the Morse Code Theory of Writing. Long. Short. Short. Long. Long. Short.

This gives your writing rhythm, or cadence, as creative writers call it.

How short can a sentence be? To be technically correct, all you need is two words: a subject and a verb. That's a sentence with impact.

For centuries writers have been writing these short sentences when they really want to make a sentence stand out. After all, the shortest sentence in the Bible is only two words long: Jesus wept.

How To Use This Tool

Long sentences are hard to follow. Check out this one-sentence excerpt from a self-help book I was asked to edit.

In the last chapter you developed your purposes, refined them with others who may be affected and took a look at what you are doing to make them happen and what you are doing to keep them from happening.

Word count: 39 words

Did you read that over several times? Or did you just give up? If you're like most of today's readers, you gave up. (I'll post about readers' attention spans next week)

The problem with the sentence is not that the information is complicated, it's that readers are asked to take in too many main ideas in one sentence.

So what do you do? You use a tool called The Meat Cleaver. Hack that sentence into separate parts, each with one, easy-to-understand main idea.

Here's the logical break:

In the last chapter you developed your purposes, refined them with others who may be affected (WHACK, here's where you slam down the Meat Cleaver) and took a look at what you are doing to make them happen and what you are doing to keep them from happening.

Now, here's the thing about The Meat Cleaver. Many times you have to do some fixing at the point where you chopped. Cauterizing is the big quarter word for it. Because your new second sentence can't stand on its own as is. So, do this:

Add an and before refined in the first sentence:

In the last chapter you developed your purposes and refined them with others who may be affected.

The new second sentence could look like this:

You also took a look at what you are doing to make them happen and what you are doing to keep them from happening.

Now the paragraph looks like this:

In the last chapter you developed your purposes and refined them with others who may be affected. You also took a look at what you are doing to make them happen and what you are doing to keep them from happening.

Word count: Sentence 1= 17. Sentence 2 = 24.

Sentence 2 is still a tad long for the guideline and can be tightened up with some editing and using reader-friendly contractions. (I'll post on contractions later--they really are okay to use.)

But isn't this new paragraph with one main idea per sentence easier to understand?

Even short sentences can be confusing if the main idea is, too. Like this one:

This is the consultant's revised report, quite different from the first one, which badly upset the task force.

Word count: 18

It fits the word count guideline, and technically it's a correct sentence. But it loses the clarity race. Because it has more than one main idea. What upset the task force? The revised report? Or the first one? The writer is the only one who would know.

The solution?

Bust it into two sentences, each with a main idea. Like this:

This is the consultant's revised recommendation. It is quite different from the first report, which badly upset the task force.

Word count: sentence one = 6 words. Sentence two = 14.

Those sentences are not dumbed down because the sentences are shorter. By taking out a comma and adding a period, those sentences are now clear. That's precision in writing. That's clarity for your reader. That's good writing.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A pair of tricky twins to keep straight

As I was developing my writing workshop, I noticed a lack of confidence in so many managers sitting in the seats. They would get hung up because they wanted their writing to be perfect. One of the things they--and millions of other white-knuckle writers--got tripped up on was confusing pairs of words.

Writing coaches call these word pairs "Tricky Twins." No spell checker in the world can help out on this one.

So I gathered up the most common ones and tried to pass along a tip to remember which one to use when. (The nuns taught me these so well.) This month, I'll give the two that bring the biggest sighs of relief to my seminar attendees.

First, is Desert and Dessert. The first word is hot and dry, the second you eat after dinner. But how do you keep them straight?

Here's what the nuns taught me, and you can memorize this phrase, too.

There is sand in a desert. (One "s" in sand; one "s" in desert.)
We had strawberry shortcake for dessert. (Two "s"s in strawberry shortcake; two "s"s in dessert.)

I've never messed it up once I memorized that trick.

The second tricky twin I hear goofed up everywhere- in conversation, in writing, even on TV sitcoms. The two words are Eager and Anxious.

Eager means you are enthusiastic about something. Anxious means you have a sense of worry or uneasiness about it.

So when you tell your boss, "I am anxious to work on this project," you may be shedding light on an attitude problem you didn't know you had. Remember, anxious has its root in "anxiety." Telling your boss, "I am eager to work on this project" may get you the peach assignment.

My UCF students are grateful to me for this tip as they prepare their cover letters and hope to set appointments for interviews. "I am eager to meet with you and learn more about your opportunity" is a powerful - and more importantly an accurate - statement for them to make.

Watch for more tricky twins in future posts. Especially if you're eager to be less anxious about your writing.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A leave of absence explained

I took some time off, as you can tell. I was blogging away and life kind of got in the way.

I had some tough issues to deal with surrounding an aging family member. Lawyers, real estate agents, moving companies, the Veterans Administration, and doctors consumed all my free time. So did sorting through four decades of family photos, generations of possessions, and a dog who couldn't follow to the Assisted Living Facility.

My friends, who had gone through similar experiences, described it best when they told me, "You're going through a new door but the hallway is hell."

The room, and its occupant, are both now settled. So I find myself with time on my hands and ideas in my head.

So, log on, blog on, and write on.