Thanks to Gayle Dahlman for her Dec. 24 Free for All letter, “Long sentences don’t help.” When I went to journalism school 60 years ago, our bibles were Rudolph Flesch’s “Art of Readable Writing” and E.B. White’s “The Elements of Style.” They preached “one sentence-one idea.” A sentence of 20 words was pushing the limit.
No opening adverbial phrases. No which/who/that subordinate clauses. No phrases between dashes. Throw out every “as” and every gerund. Use concrete nouns and active verbs. Subject-verb-direct object. Drop most adverbs and adjectives; probably the right noun or verb will suffice. Attribution can go in paragraph two. Where and when can also be in paragraph two. Or assume that “when” was “yesterday.”
We used to compete with each other on who could average the shortest sentence lengths. Twelve words, or one typewritten line, were doable.
When a Post writer leaves the office and comes home, he says, “Hi, hon, what’s for supper?” She replies, “Want to go out for Chinese tonight?” If they spoke “Post-speak,” they’d burst out laughing at each other.
Post speakers paraphrase Voltaire: “I would have written a short sentence, but I didn’t have time.” Wrong. Jot down one- or two-word ideas you want to cover. Rearrange them in the order you want to present them. Put each one in its own sentence. Outlining your story actually saves time in backspacing and starting over. Read your lead aloud to your colleague. You’ll probably stop sheepishly in mid-sentence.
Robert J. Samuelson can do it with a very difficult subject. Thomas Boswell can write a beautiful World Series report with a one-hour deadline. Your headline writer can reduce your 40-word lead into six words. You can, too.
John B. Holway, Springfield