Monthly Archives: March 2008

Syntax Support

[Written as a copy-editing guide for the journalism class. Not sure if it was ever used, but I suppose it doesn’t have an expiration date, either.]

Syntax Support:
How To Improve Your Sentence Structure


Kenneth Burchfiel

Copy editing is known more for grammar, spelling and name checks than it is for sentence structure. It doesn’t matter how the words are strung together, some might say; the important thing is that the words are accurate, properly spelled and grammatically correct. To overlook syntax in journalism, however, is to shrug off one of the most important elements of effective writing.

We may as well start with sentence length. As a journalist, you quickly learn the power of short sentences. They excite! They demand attention! They exhibit power! One well-placed blurb or fragment in a story can keep a reader attentive throughout the entire piece.

Then again, an entire story of short, compact sentences would start to sound robotic. Long sentences are great for developing the overall purpose, or message of a story; thought-out, extensive sentences should be used to (1 provide commentary on a subject, (2 develop an argument about a subject and (3 analyze a subject.

As a general rule, the first and last sentence of each paragraph should be kept relatively short. Any introduction, transition or conclusion that’s overly long or thought out will make the reader’s eyes glaze over. Keep long, detailed prose for the mid-section of paragraphs, where your audience expects to see it. It’s okay to break this rule for stylistic purposes, but not because you’re too lazy to condense what you’re trying to say.

This leads me to another point: condensation. (Not cloud condensation, although snow can be another thing.) Journalism is a study in minimization; the less amount of words you use to express something, the better. If there’s anything you should remember from this guide, it’s this: eliminate fluff. Eliminate fluff. Eliminate fluff.

Here’s an example. Let’s say a giant blizzard hit McLean, closing school for a week. How might a sentence expressing this news go?

First, a sloppy sentence.

McLean was hit by a giant blizzard that dumped 14 inches of fresh, white snow on roads and sidewalks.

Now, a concise, vastly improved one.

A blizzard dumped 14 inches of snow on McLean.

Do you see something here? The second sentence tells us everything that the first sentence communicated with half the words. How is this possible?

-Active voice. Instead of using the awkward phrase “was hit by,” sentence 2 simply puts the subject before the direct object. This alone conserves two words.

-The sentence assumes the obvious. If you’re writing about a blizzard, you don’t have to tell readers that snow is “fresh” and “white.” They know that. They also know that snow falls on “roads and sidewalks.”

-The sentence avoids redundancy. “blizzard” implies a giant snowstorm in its own right. “Giant blizzard” says the same thing twice.

Passive voice, redundancy and obvious detail make up what you might call the three tenets of fluff. They’re best avoided, though every circumstance is different.

So far, we’ve talked about two important parts of sentence form: know when to use long and short sentences, and stay concise whenever possible. The third has to do with variety. Let me explain something. Lots of short sentences together look odd. They divert the reader’s attention from the story. A lack of commas or semicolons begins to annoy people. Haven’t you noticed? It’s extremely important to mix short, to-the-point sentences with longer, more elaborated ones—if only to eliminate the eyesore that is choppy text. Likewise, if a reader reads lengthy sentence after lengthy sentence after lengthy sentence, they might wonder why they even began to look into the story at all.

This simple rule—that of variety—extends beyond length. If you find that you use far more dashes than semicolons in your writing, try using more of the latter; they do a beautiful job at transitioning between connected clauses. If you’re the type of writer who inserts a comma wherever they can find a spot, make sure that enough comma-free sentences are there to provide balance.

Don’t forget about paragraph length, either! I once read an exchange paper article that used almost nothing but one-sentence paragraphs. It made the story look simplistic and shallow—notwithstanding the time and effort the writer put into the piece. Do your best to alternate between short, matter-of-fact paragraphs and longer blocks of text.

Remember—the whole purpose of copy-editing for sentence structure is to keep things fresh. The point is not to stay away from ultra-short sentences or semicolons, but rather to use them in moderation.

I’ve just dumped a load of rules and recommendations onto your shoulder. Here’s one more—feel free to break every single one of them.

If journalists always wrote in ultra-concise sentences and exhibited a perfect balance in paragraph length, newspapers would become pretty boring to read. I’d like to end by urging you to experiment. Throw a few fragments into your story and see what happens. Use dashes—or semicolons—if you’ve never bothered with them before. To be honest, fluff isn’t always bad. The effect of a short, to-the-point sentence that follows a fluff-stuffed sentence is far greater than the power of two minimalist sentences in a row.

If you’re going to break the rules, though, do it intentionally. Don’t just say to yourself, “oh, it doesn’t matter,” and continue to use phrases like “fresh, white snow.” Few things are worse in newspaper-land than a subconscious writer.


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Life between the Lines

Life between the Lines

Kenneth Burchfiel

There was a flash, and a cramped little room appeared before them. Aside from a wooden crate and a stream of water, there was nothing but white space to be seen.

“What do you think this place is supposed to be?” the taller one asked. “The writer really rushed into the setting, huh?”

All of a sudden, five portholes appeared to the left. Water dripped down from the cracks in their sides.

“It’s a sinking ship, Red,” Bob replied. “We’re the main characters for once. That’s a change.”
Bob kicked the side of the wall with his left foot; the ship’s wall responded with a dull clang. This wouldn’t be a fun one; he could already tell.

“Horrible place for a story,” Red said. “If the author had any sense, he would have put us in Iraq, or maybe China. Sinking ships are a clichéd theme by now.” He ran a hand along one of the portholes. “Readers are tired of this sort of thing. They want car chases, Bob. Car chases.”

Bob smiled. Red was the type of person who loved to hate every story he appeared in. The guy was a good source of entertainment during a sluggish day of work.

“Forget the criticism,” Bob said. “Let’s just find a way to escape so the plot can advance. We’re not helping with the initiating action.”

They looked around. By now, the water had risen to their knees.

“Look at that,” Red said. “The writer even forgot to put in a door.”

Just then, a metal entrance appeared. Red walked over and yanked it open, only to be met with a wall of water that knocked him to the floor.

“That’s what you get for criticizing the writer, I suppose.” Bob said. “Let’s get out of here before we die prematurely.”

“No hurry,” Red said in chest-deep water. “Not even this writer is dumb enough to end a story like that.”

Back in his prime, Bob thought, he had only worked for the established authors, the people who knew what to do with his talent. Love dramas, chase scenes, the occasional comedy—he had built up quite a resume. But those writers had all but disappeared, leaving only green-eared amateurs with plots so convoluted that they may as well have been written in Greek.

They fought their way through the flood and out the door. In front of them stretched a massive hallway that vibrated with the sound of bullets. Suddenly, a set of guns appeared in their hands.

“How do we know who we’re supposed to be shooting?” Red asked. “This is one unexplained plot point after another.” He fired aimlessly. “If I were the reader, I would have sat this down long ago.”

“I know what you mean,” Bob said as he locked in on an enemy. “It would be cool if this were in space, though.”
Just then, the sky went dark. Red and Bob began to drift around the room.

“Great,” Red said. “Now we’re floating. You know a writer’s getting desperate when they listen to you for advice.”

“I’m sorry. I just like science fiction more.” Bob shrugged and bounced off the wall, shooting behind his legs.

These days, readers demanded action and gore in every paragraph. He was no stunt double, Bob thought; he was no pincushion. The punks who competed with him for parts were far better at the shallow stuff.

There wasn’t much detail outside the ship’s windows, save for a star or two. Everything else was white, empty, unexplained. Strong settings were becoming a lost art.

“You know what would actually be cool?” Red said. “If we were fighting in the Mexican War with pistols and swords.”

Nothing happened. Red looked around, confused.

“Ha!” Bob said with a smirk. “Looks like your idea isn’t—”

He gasped out in pain. A bullet had penetrated his shoulder.

“That’s got to hurt,” Red said.

“Eh, it’s not too bad. Looks like the writer wants us to do a teary dying scene. Pretty shoddy climax, if you ask me.” Bob clutched his shoulder in mock agony.

A second bullet whistled through the air and got Red in the chest. He looked down and rolled his eyes.

“It’s always in the chest, huh? Well, what could I expect from someone who puts us on a sinking ship in space?”

“Not much,” Bob said. “Well, the next story should be better. I can just feel it.”

Indeed, there was always the next story. It was the one thing about his job that heartened Bob, for once in a while, he would come across a writer who reminded him of the good old days.

Neither of their bodies were strong enough to stand. With their final strength, the two reached out and shook wire-frame hands.

“Until next time,” Red said.

“Until next time.”
They fell limp. The room flashed again, resetting the entire scene to a perfect white.

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