Last time, we discussed obtrusive writing – hurdles in a sentence that readers must leap before getting the message. Those obstacles can mean the difference between poor and polished writing. One of the most common contributors to obtrusive writing is packing more than one main idea into a sentence: In the present case, not until the final confrontation between Brigid and Sam in which Brigid, Sam’s client, has been thoroughly unmasked as the liar and killer she is (that mystery solved), and the circumstances of Archer’s death are revealed (the other mystery solved), is the story over, its central issue, the one that continued all the way from the beginning, satisfactorily tied up. Thirty-five words intervene between this sentence’s keywords: not until the final confrontation … is the story over. If we cut the obtrusions and hold them for later, we can write a clear declarative statement: “Not until the final confrontation between Brigid and Sam is the story over and its central issue resolved.” Thus condensed, even that tricky syntax is clear. But this subject-verb-object word order brings the highest clarity: “The story isn’t over until the final confrontation between Brigid and Sam resolves its central issue.” Beyond the problem of structure, though, this 64-word sentence is just too long. Studies show that the most readable sentences are in the neighborhood of 25 words. (There are exceptions – a sentence containing a list, for example). By that criterion, the sentence is nearly three times as long as it should be. How might we edit the sentence to make it clear and readable? There’s never just one way to rewrite a badly written passage, but clarifying the subject-verb-object relationship is one way: The central issue in The Maltese Falcon is not resolved until the final scene between Sam and his client, Brigid. That confrontation unmasks Brigid as a liar and killer, solves the mystery of Archer’s death, and closes the story. That revision, totaling 39 words, cuts the passage almost in half but still says everything the original said – and says it so the reader understands at a single reading. Excessive length and faulty structure are not the only reasons for unreadable obtrusions in media writing. Some journalistic habits promote obtrusiveness – for example, the automatic inclusion of a subject’s age, surrounded by commas, when age is beside the point: He discussed his plans with his partner, Mary Doe, 35, before he made his final decision. The comma-age-comma practice is useful in certain “just-the-facts” news reports, but it’s merely journalese when it’s in a feature striving for a conversational and story-telling style. How do we know? Because we wouldn’t talk that way. (We should likewise avoid other obtrusive and automatic insertions – such as “Mary Doe, D-Dallas” – in story-telling writing.) Another obtrusive journalistic practice is interrupting quotations with editorial insertions. If a quotation is too weak to stand on its own two feet, why include it? A strong paraphrase is better than a weak quotation. But quotations are often interrupted with unnecessary explanation: John Battaglia, father of the accused, said that during a jail visit, his son told him that he had become despondent over Ms. Pearle’s attempts to put him in jail, which he believed could have cost his visitation rights. ‘He said there was no place to go,’ the elder Mr. Battaglia said. ‘He said she [Ms. Pearle] had pushed him in a corner, and he was never going to see them [the girls] again.’ The paragraph preceding the quotation clarifies the pronouns “she” and “them” in the quotation. Although those pronouns are perfectly clear, the writer interrupts the quote twice to “explain.” Here’s another unnecessary interruption: But the coach knew his team members’ fate would soon be out of his hands. ‘When you take them [team members] on the floor, you’re like, “OK. It’s up to y’all,” ‘ he said. Again, no sensible reader needs to have the pronoun “them” explained – it could only mean the team members in the context of this passage. Here are reasonable words on the subject of obtrusion from Time magazine writer Paul Gray. He is reviewing John Irving’s latest novel, “The Fourth Hand:” Irving keeps interrupting his narrative with little parenthetical explanations. About one of Wallingford’s girlfriends: ‘She had problems with men or at least she thought she had. (Same difference.)’ About film footage of Jackie Kennedy: ‘She looks so young, Wallingford thought. (She was young – it was 1961!)’ Irving has always been a generous author, but here his constant fussing to make sure the reader is comfortable and picking up every single nuance grows wearisome. Hush, please, we’re trying to read!
Paula LaRocque is assistant managing editor and writing coach at The Dallas Morning News and author of Championship Writing (Marion Street Press).