Issue 2, No. 10 – Sept. 11, 2007

Shout Outs

When sentences run the same length throughout a story, it gets monotonous. Readers drop off. The solution: Vary sentence length. Read and listen to Kenyon Farrow’s lead on an international AIDS conference this summer to see how he varies sentence length and punctuation to great effect (the emphasis is mine):

HIV experts gathering at the International AIDS Society conference in Sydney next week are sure to champion the need for greater treatment access in the developing world—and to point out that in the United States, by contrast, drugs have made HIV a manageable disease. But that is only partly true: Many HIV-positive people in this country confront financial barriers and a labyrinth of rules that keep life-saving medications beyond their reach. For them, HIV is not manageable at all.

Kenyon’s first sentence is 45 words but it’s easy to follow and the words after the dash prepare the reader for what’s to follow. The long sentence advances the story. The short sentences (in this example, the colon stops the reader as surely as a period) force you to stop and think.

Writing coach Roy Peter Clark, in his book, “Writing Tools/50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer,’’ makes a similar point about the power of short sentences: “Tom Wolfe once told William Buckley Jr. that if a writer wants the reader to think something the absolute truth, the writer should render it in the shortest possible sentence. Trust me.”

We’re not big on first-person journalism here. In the wrong hands, it can come off as self-absorbed and irrelevant. But when somebody’s experience illuminates or explains, it can carry a powerful punch. Ben Levisohn helped Business Week readers understand how this summer’s volatile markets were a God-send for people like Ben (used to be):

What a ride. The Dow Jones industrial average plunges nearly 300 points one day, then the next it’s up that much. A 150-point gain at noon turns into a 100-point loss by the closing bell. Since the Dow’s 14,000 record high on July 19, the average has had 14 days in which it made a triple-digit change from the previous day’s close. As of Aug. 21, the Dow industrials are up 5% for the year but down 6.5% since the peak. For most investors, the decline can be distressing, even devastating. But if you’re a day trader, which is how I earned my living for nearly eight years, these market swings are manna from heaven. Stocks are moving again. This is a great market.

Ben went on to explain, as clearly as I’ve seen, just what a day trader does.

Here’s what Ben learned: “I’ve tried to write first-person day trading stories in the past and they’ve usually ended up a mess. By having a clear focus — the current market situation and the increased volatility — I had a framework where my experience wasn’t just a collection of anecdotes strung together, but a way to illuminate a specific subject, using my experiences as a guide. Just having that little bit of focus made it much easier”

This Week’s Writing Tip

Strong quotes can make a story come alive. Jose Moreno, early in his profile of a 33-year-old Senegalese immigrant to Spain, captures the tension between her love of homeland and her desire for a better life: “My land hasn’t always treated me well, but this does not mean I have lost respect for it. I would give up my life if it would improve the conditions there.”

The trick is to make sure you’re using quotes that propel your story. Unfortunately, many inexperienced writers use quotes that would be better paraphrased or left out altogether. You should almost never quote someone giving a statistic or adding some bureaucratic information. If it needs attribution, just paraphrase and use “said X.’’

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