The overlong sentence is the journalistic equivalent of the weather: Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. Likewise, although journalists agree that long sentences usually damage clarity and readability, they don’t stop writing them.
Take this lead written by a veteran journalist for a respected newspaper:
The retired four-star Army general who was sent to Iraq two weeks ago to assess operations there has concluded that American troops must speed up and strengthen the training of Iraqi security forces, by assigning thousands of additional military advisers to work directly with Iraqi units, said senior defense and military officials here and in Iraq.
The officer, Gen. Gary E. Luck, largely endorses a plan by American commanders in Iraq to shift the military’s main mission after the Jan. 30 elections from fighting the insurgency to training Iraq’s military and police forces to take over those security and combat duties and become more self-reliant, eventually allowing American forces to withdraw, the officials said.
If clear expression is an idea’s most elegant dress, that writing is “nekkid.” It may serve certain journalistic precepts, but it doesn’t serve the reader. And, unfortunately, it’s all too typical. We’re so used to it that we don’t see how bad it is.
But let’s plead the reader’s case and identify this writing for what it is. Read the passage aloud, and you’ll hear at once what’s wrong. First, it contains too many words to be clear. Its two sentences total 114 words — more than twice the optimal sentence length. The passage also is fussed up with prepositions, passive voice and formula. Finally, it isn’t conversational. It’s bulky with artificial implants that may seem necessary to the writer — or to the editor, which amounts to the same thing — but not to the reader.
The looseness of overlong sentences allows poor phrasing as well: “The retired four-star Army general.” The writer probably led with this vague identification because most readers would not recognize “Gen. Gary E. Luck.” It’s often sound to use a short generic label in the lead, holding specific ID for later — instead of an unrecognizable name or very long title. But a hefty six-word label that still fails to identify adds unnecessary weight to an already long sentence. A generic identification such as “retired general” or “military expert (officer, adviser, analyst)” would be shorter, clearer and less obtrusive.
“Was sent to Iraq two weeks ago to assess.” That passive structure hides the actor. The active voice would have made it clear that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dispatched the general to Iraq, a meaningful detail buried in the story’s 11th paragraph.
“Said senior defense and military officials here and in Iraq.” Well, that’s a bit much, isn’t it? Here we are, trying to trim fat, and we waste 10 words on a meaningless attribution. Senior! Defense and military! Here and in Iraq! Too bad we can’t say who they are!
Such language is journalese for “insiders you can trust.” But readers expect the media to use sources they can trust. They don’t want to be sidelined by unnecessary distinctions, nor will they parse a gummy sentence to capture coded significance. To readers, “officials” is clearer than “senior military and defense officials.” If we can’t name a source, fine, but we shouldn’t bewilder the reader and burden the sentence with mysterious and useless clutter, either.
Prepositions and particles also clog the passage — a usual accompaniment to overlong sentences. Again, read the second sentence aloud, and see how its prepositional singsong damages flow and sense:
“The officer, Gen. Gary E. Luck, endorses a plan by American commanders in Iraq to shift the military’s main mission after the Jan. 30 elections from fighting the insurgency to training Iraq’s military and police forces to take over . . . .”
For conversational pacing, we want a wide variety of sentence lengths. But, everything being equal, clear writing tries for a sentence length average of about 25 words. We must make room in the sentence for the vital message — especially in the lead. The story hangs upon action — actor, action, acted upon. Nonvital detail should be omitted or, if useful, included later in the story.
How might the passage above read if we rewrote it, using the writer’s basic approach and style, but shortening, tightening, and clarifying? Can we add meaning by losing words? We can.
The United States must add thousands of advisers to work directly with Iraqi troops, concludes a military officer who analyzed the war effort in Iraq.
Gary E. Luck, a retired four-star Army general who conducted his two-week assessment for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, approves shifting the U.S. mission from fighting to training. The additional advisers would train Iraqi forces to assume security and combat duties after the Jan. 30 election, gradually allowing U.S. withdrawal.
That version cuts the original’s 114 words to 75, yet is immediately more informative because it’s immediately clearer.
Paula LaRocque, former writing coach at The Dallas Morning News, is author of The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well and of Championship Writing, available at marionstreetpress, Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. E-mail Paula at firstname.lastname@example.org.