We’re not against long sentences here but too often writers lose their way and don’t understand the story they’re trying to tell the reader, if you get what I mean, hopefully, as scribes pile on the clauses, modifiers, punctuation and parenthetical phrases (Parody alert!). To help stop this trend, take a look at the lead in a Times story from Istanbul by Sabrina Tavernise:
High school hurt for Havva Yilmaz. She tried out several selves. She ran away. Nothing felt right. “There was no sincerity,” she said. “It was shallow.”
So at 16, she did something none of her friends had done: She put on an Islamic head scarf.
In most Muslim countries, that would be a nonevent. In Turkey, it was a rebellion. Turkey has built its modern identity on secularism. Women on billboards do not wear scarves. The scarves are banned in schools and universities. So Ms. Yilmaz dropped out of school. Her parents were angry. Her classmates stopped calling her.
Check out the length of her sentences. The longest one is 19 words, the one with the colon. Her meaning is clear. The sentences work to pull you into a lengthy story about one young woman’s struggle with her identity, and her country. The nut graf also sets the scene for what is to come.
Caution: The short sentence can be overdone. The best writing often varies sentence length, using short sentences to make a powerful point, the longer sentences to convey information or continuity. But the short, declarative sentence often is the best antidote to tangled, tortured writing.
Here are some good examples of short, clear sentences to power a story. Lee Hernandez used them for his Daily News story on the designer Isabel Toledo:
When Barack Obama’s wife, Michelle, wore an elegant black tunic and palazzo pants to a Calvin Klein fund-raiser in Manhattan last June, Isabel Toledo swooned.
“Michelle really wanted to be sophisticated, and she did it,” says the Cuban-American designer.
“Graphically, she was a visual message that read, ‘I’m in control.’”
Toledo should know — she designed the set.
Simple, easy to read, a powerful verb in the lead — “swooned” — and short sentences that make a point. One quibble: Given the lead, keep everything in the past tense. Use “said” instead of “says.”
Matt Townsend kept it simple, but powerful, in his Daily News lead on the rescue of a pregnant woman in Brooklyn:
Two good Samaritans carried a seven-months pregnant woman out of her smoke-filled Brooklyn apartment building Saturday after a discount store in the building caught fire.
When Yole Basile’s three daughters screamed, “Mom’s up there,” laundromat manager Karl Ahrendts and neighbor Francisco Jaenchaies knew they couldn’t wait for rescuers to help the woman.
“I looked at the other guy and said, ‘Let’s go,'” said Jaenchaies, 33. “If she would have died, it would have been like two people dying because she’s seven months pregnant.”
The pair raced up to the third-floor flat on New Lots Ave. in Brownsville where the 34-year-old woman was lying helpless on her bed.
Maureen Ker and Jessica Firger did a good explainer on “pop-up stores” that create marketing buzz for retailers. Kate Zhao did some excellent reporting on how China may not welcome the U.S. with open arms when Treasury folks come calling for help with the credit crunch.
The Wrong Stuff
Hey, we can learn a lot from bad writing, too. Check out the Write Stuff blog for our Wrong Stuff bad writing contest, and please post your best examples of the worst writing in the journalism you’ve read recently (Caution: No fair sending in anything from your colleagues. Let’s pick on others even as we recognize that we’re capable of similar atrocities with the language.)