Guest post: Brevity is best

Students in my Advanced Editing course are contributors to The Editor’s Desk this semester. They are free to write about whatever they wish, provided that the topic fits the theme for this blog: “thoughts on editing for print and online media.”

This is the seventh of these guest posts. Katherine Latshaw is a senior journalism major and a bibliophile.  Some of her favorite authors include Vladimir Nabokov, Haruki Murakami and Charlotte Brontë.  She likes to bake tasty treats to feed her friends.

It is a concept stressed continually to reporters: write simply. It makes sense, too. Short sentences make their points faster. Long, labored sentences are a turnoff to readers.

Don’t get me wrong — I love words. It was a dark day for me when I inevitably came to the end of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” (page count: 1,079). I intern at a publishing company in Chapel Hill where my first assignment was to pare down a 1,400 page memoir. I hesitated to eliminate even one wonderful word.

In journalism, however, concise writing is key to delivering news. Because many now take a hurried glance at an online news aggregator instead of leisurely reading the paper over breakfast, it is crucial that articles not be wordy. Yeah, yeah, everyone knows this already. So then why are such clunky sentences still so prevalent?

Look at this sentence from a recent article in The New York Times: “If the lender reduced the borrower’s monthly housing payment to 38 percent of the household’s gross monthly income, the Treasury Department would match, dollar for dollar, the lender’s cost in reducing payments down to 31 percent of monthly household income.” Oof. Not only is it 40 words long, but it is also extremely confusing.  In “The Associated Press Guide to News Writing,” the inimitable Rene Cappon advises making 17 or 18 words the average sentence length.

Here’s another from The Denver Post: “Ten states have passed legislation since 2001 granting in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements. Those states include California, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New York, New Mexico, Utah, Washington, Oklahoma and Texas.” It’s probably not necessary to list all 10 states, but if one really must, then please don’t use the word “include,” which implies that not all items are given.

Finally, here’s one from The News & Observer that could benefit from word deletion and insertion of a period. “Although he grew up in Greensboro at a time when opportunities for African-Americans were scant, Webb was the fortunate son of well-educated parents who instilled a thirst for knowledge in their children, knowing it was the key to a good and productive life.”

Simple edits can make this 43-word sentence more effective. “There were few opportunities in Greensboro for African Americans when Webb was growing up. Fortunately, his well-educated parents taught him that learning was essential to a good life.” (Readers, come up with something better and leave a comment!)

Newspapers are on shaky ground and can’t afford to lose readers. Let’s retain them and gain more with the strength of our writing and editing. Be brief!

3 thoughts on “Guest post: Brevity is best

  1. In my opinion, shorter sentences are easier to read than longer ones. However a story that is composed of all short sentences can be a little monotonous. It’s probably better to use a variety of sentence lengths (and constructions), in order to maintain reader interest.

  2. In my point of view, a story must be mixture of short and long sentences. It will help the reader to put more attention in sentences and eventually in story otherwise your story would look like some poerty.

  3. Thanks for your comments! That’s definitely a great point, and I should have mentioned it somewhere in my post. A story that is only made up of short sentences will put the reader to sleep in no time. The point of my post, which may not have been very clear, was to stress that long, convoluted sentences have *no* place in a story.

    Thanks again for reading!🙂

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