Consider this sentence from a sports story that ran Thursday:
Eyebrows were raised when Francona picked Bauer instead of Kluber, and the eccentric right-hander, perhaps best known for slicing a pinkie open while repairing a drone during last year’s postseason and bleeding all over the mound in Toronto, delivered a performance that started October just right for the Indians.
And this one from a news story about the sentencing of a defendant:
Geyser and Anissa Weier, both 15, were 12 when they were charged as adults after telling detectives they plotted to kill their friend Payton Leutner to placate Slender Man, an internet boogeyman they said would kill them or their families if they didn’t carry out the act.
And this one from a crime story:
Murphy of Milwaukee is charged with two counts each of fleeing and eluding, causing great bodily harm, two counts each of hit-and-run, great bodily harm, two counts of driving with a suspended license, causing great bodily harm, two counts of resisting an officer, causing injury, and car theft.
And this lead on a bankruptcy story:
In a busy day in Bankruptcy Court Tuesday, the UW Oshkosh Foundation filed a legal action against the University of Wisconsin System, won preliminary permission to pay out $500,000 between now and the end of the year and expressed confidence that 1,200 pages of documentation it filed with the court would keep endowed and other restricted funds away from creditors.
The common thread is that each of these sentences is too long and too heavy. Each one is a minimum of 47 words and lead is a whopping 60 words. Information of value exists in each of these sentences, but it is almost impossible to extract it from the writing itself.
The concept of “length” and “weight” are important in journalistic writing. Depending on your area of the field, what constitutes too long will vary. Broadcasters write in the shortest sentences (8-15 words usually) while text-based publications like newspapers and news websites run about 20-24 for body copy sentences and 25-35 words for leads. Magazine writers can go longer, but usually that’s for effect, using the length of a sentence to create pace or set a mood. In the sentences above, the length creates confusion and buries crucial concepts deep in the verbiage.
Weight, however, is primarily based on feel, word choice and sentence content. In counting length, the word “I” and the word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” each counts as one. Obviously, in terms of adding to the complexity of the sentence, these words are not equal. In addition, the weight of a sentence can increase dramatically when a writer stuffs too many facts, numbers or concepts into a single story, thus weighing down the reader with information. Heavier sentences feel unwieldy and can leave a reader confused.
Here are three tips to identify problems like these and keep your writing lighter and and tighter when it comes to weight and length:
- One sentence, one concept: The reason you should start with a noun-verb/noun-verb-object structure and build outward is that you remain focused on the core principles that matter in the sentence. Each sentence should have a main assertion or a key message that you capture in the NVO core. Just like every paragraph in an inverted pyramid story should build upon and reflect the lead, every element you add to a sentence should build upon and reflect that NVO core. When you try to do too much with one sentence, you end up with sentences like the one you saw above. If you have multiple concepts, pull each one out and see if it can stand on its own as a single sentence. It’s better to have several shorter, easier-to-digest sentences than one long one that no one can get through.
- Read it out loud: One of the best tricks you can use to find grammar problems, structure problems and length/weight problems is to read the sentence aloud. If the sentence flows smoothly off your lips and clearly tells the story, you’re fine. If the sentence makes your tongue feel like it’s falling down a flight of stairs, you need to work on it. When it comes to length and weight, take a normal, human breath (not like the Titanic is going under and you’re trying to survive) and read the sentence out loud. If you get to the end and your chest starts feeling tight and you’re running out of air, it needs a trim. If you run out of air before you hit the end, you definitely need to go back through this and give it another look.
- Edit for your audience: In a lot of cases, we write from the perspective of journalists and other experts in the fields we cover. That’s where jargon, overly specific content and other problems tend to emerge. After you write something, go back and read it from the perspective of your audience. For example, if you wrote a story for your college newspaper about a student injured in an accident, you might include the phrase, “Smith was transported to a nearby medical facility for treatment of injuries sustained in the crash.” Does that sound like anything you would ever say? Have you ever gotten seriously hurt and yelled to a friend, “Hey Bobby! I need you transport me to a nearby medical facility!” Probably not. “Taken to a hospital” works a little better.
In the court story above, the listing of the charges could be better handled in a simple breakout box where the author would list them out in bullet points. The lead on the bankruptcy should be two sentences, with a more generic explanation of the documentation in the lead if it needed to stay there. Also, you can get rid of throwaway terms like “in a busy day” or “the eccentric right-hander.” In each sentence, ask yourself if you are telling your readers what they need to know in the best way possible. If so, leave it alone. If not, make it so.