One of the most common yet easily remedied problems in media writing is the failure to keep to one main idea per sentence. Journalism’s tin gods, the five Ws and H, may be partly to blame – writers stuff a sentence because they think they should. That bad thinking invariably results in bad writing. The simple, straightforward declarative sentence is the hero of good writing. Such a sentence has a main point to make and makes it. When sentences dither, distracted by tangential material, they become muddy and unreadable. Watch this film critic get lost on the way to a main point: The boutique art-house distributor Milestone Film & Video, which already deserves a medal for restoring and recirculating such lost classics as Mikhail Kalatozov’s I am Cuba and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Mamma Roma, has released to video Powell’s gorgeous 1937 first release, The Edge of the World (beautifully restored by the British Film Institute), the story of two clans torn apart in a tiny Scottish Isles crofting community. Read that sentence aloud. At 67 words, it’s about three times as long as it should be. But its problem is not length so much as it is the obtrusions that repeatedly interrupt it. Such writing is a snap to fix, though: All we have to do is remember what we learned in grade school – that clear sentences usually convey one main idea: Powell’s 1937 Edge of the World is available on video through art-house distributor Milestone Film & Video, which restored and recirculated such lost classics as Mikhail Kalatozov’s I am Cuba and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Mamma Roma. Powell’s film, beautifully restored by the British Film Institute, is the story of two clans torn apart in a tiny Scottish Isles crofting community. The problem of obtrusive material is worsened in the original passage because it interrupts subject and verb (distributor has released). The demands of clarity suggest that subjects and verbs should be in the same vicinity – as should verbs and objects. This frustrating habit of inserting all manner of material between naturally related parts of speech is endemic in media writing: Working as part of an international team led by U.S. and Ethiopian scientists, a graduate student named Yohannes Haile-Selassie (no relation to the emperor), enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, has found the remains of what appears to be the most ancient human ancestor ever discovered. We see here the curse of the Ws. The writer interrupts subject and verb (a graduate student has found) with the student’s name, which unfortunately is a famous name and requires explanation. Then he adds the student’s university as well. Who and where are important, but nothing is as important as writing well. The Ws and H can wait if they’re going to get in the way of the message – as they do here. Again, the fix is easy: An Ethiopian graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley has found the remains of what appears to be the most ancient human ancestor ever discovered. Yohannes Haile-Selassie (no relation to the emperor) made the discovery while working with an international team led by U.S. and Ethiopian scientists. Below is more obtrusion: Legislation dubbed the patients bill of rights is expected to pass the House today after an 11th hour agreement Wednesday between President George W. Bush and the bill’s Republican sponsor on a crucial provision of the measure. But the accord between Bush and Rep. Charles Norwood of Georgia left Democrats – including the measure’s co-sponsor, Rep. John. Dingell, D-Dearborn – in the dark regarding what was agreed to. The problem leading to the marathon negotiations between Norwood, the White House and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., had been over provisions allowing patients to sue HMOs. That passage also suffers triteness and grammatical error. Dubbed, 11th hour and marathon negotiation is stale phrasing. Between Norwood, the White House, and Hastert is ungrammatical because between cannot refer to more than two entities. Those problems are easy to fix as we clear the way between subject and verb: Congress is expected to pass the patients’ bill of rights today after President George W. Bush and the bill’s Republican sponsor agreed on critical provisions of the measure. But the details of the accord between Bush and Rep. Charles Norwood eluded Democrats – including the measure’s co-sponsor, Rep. John. Dingell, D-Dearborn. Whether patients could sue HMOs – and to what extent – was the issue that prolonged negotiations involving Norwood, the White House, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. In short, a sentence goes off course when it meanders toward its destination, gathering stray bits along the way. Hitting the target always means perfect focus – clear head, clear eye, true aim.
Paula LaRocque is assistant managing editor and writing coach at The Dallas Morning News. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.