Thursday, July 29, 2010

Empower Your Sentences

By Jessica Murphy

Our writing needs not only to hook our readers, but also allow them to understand and remember its information. To do so, we need to write clear, powerful sentences. Four tips will help you write readable sentences:
  1. Put the main idea in the independent clause
  2. Put the subject and verb at the beginning of the sentence
  3. Vary sentence length
  4. Avoid double negatives

Put the Main Idea in the Independent Clause

The independent clause is the strongest part of a sentence because it is complete by itself. Along the same lines, the subject and verb are the strongest parts of the independent clause. Therefore, the most important information (the main idea) belongs here.

Take the following sentence: “If you touch that wire, it will electrocute you.” The most important information is that the wire will electrocute anyone who touches it, hence why it is in the independent clause. If we buried it in the dependent clause, then the sentence structure would not properly emphasize the important information.

Also, avoid introducing sentences with passive phrases (such as “there are” or “it is”), which delay the main idea and waste space. After all, which of the following sentences conveys the important information better:

“There is a wire that will electrocute you.”
Active: “That wire will electrocute you.”

Put the Subject and Verb at the Beginning of the Sentence

The beginning of a sentence establishes the sentence's topic. By putting the subject and verb at the beginning, you can let your readers know what to expect in the rest of the sentence. Otherwise, the delay will prevent readers from understanding the sentence and may force them to waste their time and energy rereading it:

Delayed information: “From my driveway to my front door, I was chased by wasps.”
Immediate information: “Wasps chased me from my driveway to my front door.”

This does not mean you should cut introductory phrases, which provide context: “When I mowed over their nest, the wasps chased me from my driveway to my front door.”

Vary Sentence Length

If several sentences are the same length, the monotonous rhythm will lull your readers to sleep. To fix this, vary sentence length. You can also do this to emphasize key points; following a long sentence with a short one emphasizes the latter: “As I groped in the dark, my fingertips touched something wet and hot, and the reek of copper filled my nose. Blood.” This also works with paragraph length.

Avoid Double Negatives

A double negative (e.g., "Nobody doesn't like Sara Lee") forces your readers to waste their time and effort interpreting its meaning. Instead of saying "I don't dislike vegetables," just say "I like vegetables." It saves time and effort, which will keep your readers reading.

By following these tips, you will help your readers understand and remember what you write. And that's the point of writing.

Rude, Carolyn. Technical Editing. 4th ed. Longman, 2006. 254-258, 260.

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