A student in my reporting class turned in a story with a 64-word lead, leading me grumble about you damned kids and your hippity hoppity music again.
Ever since I taught my first writing class, I emphasized leads of 25-35 words. If you go past 35, it better be for a good reason. If you go past 40, you’d better be curing cancer with that thing.
Fortunately for me, I’m not the only one muttering about sentence length. Take a look at this piece from Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark, a master of journalism who is about a dozen times smarter than I am on this stuff:
Within a text, white space is created by paragraphs. Short paragraphs create more white space. Long ones, especially in narrow columns, cast a gray shadow on the page. Without reading a word, readers see tombstones with the epitaph: “Heavy lifting.”
This dense packing of words presents itself not only in the body of stories, but even in the leads. An old nickname for this problem is “the suitcase lead.” The writer takes all the key elements, stuffs it into a single paragraph, sometimes a single sentence, and slams it shut. If it doesn’t fit, the writer sits on it till it closes.
In the age of the text message, this trend seems odd.
The trend Clark outlines does seem odd, if you imagine that students are purposely writing gigantic sentences from the get-go. However, if you realize that this is more about language creep and failure to set meaningful limits, this makes sense.
Think about this like you would driving: How often to do you actively attenuate to the EXACT speed you are traveling for any extended period of time? If you’re like most of us, you’re cruising along at whatever speed everyone else is until you all spot the state highway patrol vehicle, at which point everyone starts driving 20 miles under the speed limit.
Only when you know you’re going to get crushed by a horrific ticket do you slow down, which is why a place like Rosendale, Wisconsin is so terrifying to most people.
The Village of Rosendale has about 1,000 people in it and it sits along Highway 23 just outside of the Fox Valley. Most towns of this size aren’t known for much. Rosendale is a legend for its speed-limit enforcement. If you find yourself going “just a few miles over,” you might get nailed. If you think I’m kidding, here’s a look at the T-shirts they sell in the village’s gas station:
The point is, they’re cracking down like hell and you knowing that puts a little sweat on your brow and removes a little lead from your foot as you drive through that little hamlet.
Think about the last time you were REALLY held to a word limit on a per sentence basis. Most professors force you to stretch for extra pages or longer essays, thus giving you a reason to infuse your writing with superfluous stuff. Even when you have word limits like on scholarship essays or eBay feedback, you’re not limited in each sentence. You can write a sentence that would put one of Bret Easton Ellis’ coked up protagonists to shame, so long as the total word count works.
When it comes to your writing, think about having that Rosendale cop sitting on your bumper, checking out your sentence length. That officer is just waiting to pounce, and all you have to do is ignore the simple rule of keeping things short and tight.
In writing longer sentences, we’re writing for ourselves, either feeling too lazy to go back and edit stuff or too proud of our winding prose to chop it back. However, the readers want to know two simple things:
- What happened?
- Why do I care?
In each sentence, you can tell the readers those ideas in a simple and easy way if you stick to the noun-verb-object structure and focus on what THEY need to know as opposed to what YOU want to tell them.
In essence, writing that way is just the ticket.