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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