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How to Write a Brilliant Long Sentence

Nepal

Our world is full of useful guidelines on how to write for the web. Sensible, everyday guidelines. But, over time, we morph those guidelines into laws. Unbreakable rules that spoil the fun. Sour the adventure.

Take writing short sentences, for instance.

It’s a useful guideline. Full of benefits. Meant to be inviting. Easy on the eyes. Breezy for the brain. Certainly the short sentence is a boon in this mean, cold world. Where a busy reader is likely to give your humdinger of a headline a once-over, your first line a second glance, then disappear.

Forever.

But the short sentence can become boring. Breathtakingly boring. It can become repetitive. Monotonous. Monotone. Routine. And dry. Which frustrates the reader.

See, there comes a moment in every article or sales letter where all that tension building up behind those cute, compact, and simple sentences (you know, those one-subject, one-verb constructions, with an occasional direct object thrown in if the writer is feeling frisky) must be released.

In fact, there is a secret tradition between you and the reader which says short sentences promise a surprise is on the way. Some goodie. A toy in the cereal box. But tease the reader too long and she checks out.

That’s where the long sentence enters. That sometimes complex and strange construction winding its way through your paragraphs.

It’s like the ground beneath a hiker suddenly gives way and carries her down the mountainside, breathless, until she finds her footing again on the solid path, and plods on, savoring the joy of surviving the near miss.

That’s the power of a good long sentence. Something you can — and should — pull off in the prosaic world of web writing.

But before you run off to pump some long sentences into your prose, there’s something you should know. In the wrong hands long sentences can become dreadful. Or simply weak.

Note …

An abundance of And

Some writers believe longs sentences are  simply made by coupling clauses with the word and. This is called polysyndeton, and yes, it is one of twelve literary devices you can use to take charge of your boring writing. But it’s a cheap way to get a long sentence.

In the right hands, a long sentence coupled with the word and will build in power and pace. The action pushes the plot forward because the writer is pointing the gaze of the reader to something going on in the world. He’s obeying the golden rule of writing.

But in the wrong hands, this trick becomes nothing more than a meaningless connector. You might as well use periods.

Anaphora abuse

This is another literary trick I taught you. In this case, same word starts multiple clauses. This Dave Eggers sentence is a classic example of anaphora:

I fly past the smaller shops, past the men drinking wine on the benches, past the old men playing dominoes, past the restaurants and the Arabs selling clothes and rugs and shoes, past the twins my age, Ahok and Awach Ugieth, two very kind and hardworking girls carrying bundles of kindling on their heads, Hello, Hello, we say, and finally I step into the darkness of my father’s stores, completely out of breath.”

The repeated word is past. And it works because the writer is describing a boy running through an African marketplace. It’s a sentence that mirrors the action of the subject. It is pointing the reader to something happening in the world (in this case, a fictional world).

But too many anaphoras and the copy can become confusing, burdensome. In that case, you might as well use periods.

Endless supply of semicolons

The amateur writer thinks churning out a long list connected with semicolons is the same thing as churning out a brilliant long sentence. Like so:

I was in a surly mood when I woke up so I went to the record store; bought a Wagner album; teased the clerk; downed an iced tea; taunted the vendor who sold it to me; stole cheese from my roommate to make a sandwich; dropped the album on the record player, slid my headphones on, and devoured the sandwich in three bites; three hours later I was in a worse mood.

There is pace. It builds. But this is just the word and in a different gown. Not a sexy long sentence. You might as well use periods.

The parenthetical pain

Usually occurs when the writer has to explain something that happened before (backstory). That’s not a bad thing, mind you. It’s only a bad thing if the backstory is more interesting than the present action. And if that’s the case, then just dispense with the present, and begin in the past.

My two attempts at a long sentence in the opening of this article involve parenthetical statements. Remove those statements and the sentences work just fine. Better, in fact.

The magic of resumptive modifier

This neat trick repeats a word in the second clause that was used in the first. Jesse Hines use this simple sentence as an example:

The restaurant serves excellent sushi, sushi that bursts with flavor.”

The bolded word is repeated, and then its meaning is expanded. Slick, but not much of a long sentence. There is a better way.

Swimming in summative modifiers

These modifiers summarizes something said in the previous statement, usually the main clause. In Rhetorical Style, Jean Fahnestock writes, “The resumptive modifier reaches into a string of terms and pulls out one for the emphasis of repetition.”

For example:

The defensive coaches taught risk-taking, ball-hawking, and perpetual movementthree strategies that bewildered the opposition and resulted in many bad passes, steals, and easy fastbreak baskets.

New information about the three bolded phrases is added in the second clause. And the second clause begins with a reference to those three phrases.

In the introduction I created a summative modifier in my second long sentence. But instead of putting it at the end of the sentence, I stuck it in the middle. That, too, is a no-no.

Let me show you why.

Branch to the right

The simplest and best way to write a long sentence is to state the subject and verb as early as you can in the beginning of the sentence, and simply to branch to the right.

Gasper Hicks stared down at the dead teenager at the foot of his door and realized he knew him; knew him as a boy, from the days when Gasper taught Sunday school, knew him as a blonde, dirt-faced kid desperate for attention, knew him as one of the dozen anxious children they bussed from the trailer park.

In other words, if you keep the subject and the verb together, then you should not confuse the reader, no matter what you pile on afterwards. When you branch to the right, the reader, Stephen Pinker, author of The Sense of style, says, “never has to keep a phrase suspended in memory for long while new words pour in. That tree has been shaped to spread the cognitive load over time.”

Read this 2,167 word monster sentence by Gabriel Garcia Marquez called “The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship” and you’ll see what I mean. It works because the action went in one direction and did not depend upon anything in the past.

But I wouldn’t recommend such an approach for web writing. A wee bit excessive.

Fortunately English is a right-branching language, so it should come naturally. But beware. Those parenthetical lame backstories or list of semicolons can slip in. And keep in mind, modifiers at the start of sentence are useful, but keep them short.

Image source: Dorothy Lin

A Creative Trick for Mastering the Art of Conversational Writing

Warhol Bus Sunglasses

Speaking is a natural act. Every single human being has the ability to do it. And at a very young age. The reason why says cognitive scientist and linguist Stephen Pinker is because we have a language instinct.

We master this instinct as we imitate sounds made by mom and dad, brother and sister, nana and popo. Soon we are forming one word sentences, then two and three words sentences, and, at around age two, we are demanding to put our seat belts on ourselves while “you worry about yourself.”

Writing, however, is another story.

Man has an indistinctive tendency to speak, as we see in the babble of our young children, whereas no child has an instinctive tendency to bake, brew, or write. – Charles Darwin

Because writing is a recent invention (roughly 5,200 years old), it’s not instinctual and has to be encouraged and taught. And for anyone who has learned to write — or teaches young writers — we all know that’s not easy. Writing is hard because it is not natural. And this unnaturalness usually shows up in wobbly, demented prose.

This can be overcome, however, by writing with a conversational tone. In other words, writing like you speak. But funny thing is … when we sit down to type out a post or book or sales letter … we tighten up, balk, and blame the weather-breakfast-horoscope.

There are several reasons for this.

One, who wouldn’t stall when faced with the reality that, unlike spoken words, written words become permanent public fixtures once we publish them? From that moment onward we face criticism and ridicule.

Not so with speech. Its transitory nature makes it pretty tempting to pop off what ever is on our mind with little fear for fallout. How often have you, six months or six years down the road, said, “Dang, I wish I’d never said that”?

The other reason we get stiff when we think about writing is that it really is not a natural act. Unlike the act of speaking, where you are face-to-face with another person, when you sit down (or stand up if that’s your thing) to write, you’ve entered the land of make believe: you have to pretend like you are talking to someone when you’re not. We call people who do that lunatics (eccentric if they have a lot of money in the bank).

And that weirdness renders some creative, but wooden and dense prose. “I have an indispensable attraction with the fabric enveloping your hip region.” You mean you like her skirt?

Pulitzer-prize winning journalist David Leonhardt (now editor of NY Times’ The Upshot) was no stranger to  wordslaw when he began his career. So for several months he wrote all of his rough drafts in Yahoo Mail instead of Microsoft Word and trained himself to be a plain-spoken writer. And it’s probably safe to say he imagined he was in a conversation when he wrote those rough drafts.

Of course, instead of writing a rough draft, you could use your phone’s voice memo or software like Dragon Naturally Speaking that turns voice into text. Again, just pretend you are talking to someone else. By the way, nice side benefit to this approach is you’ll naturally work in your own voice and style into your prose.

And don’t forget to read what you wrote out loud. (For a funny version of this advice, see this.)

Want some more lessons on how to write clear or concise copy? Then see 9 Ways to Write Clear Copy and 6 More Exercises to Help You Write Concise Copy.

One Way to Break Your Weakness for Stuffy Prose

Warhol Limo Window

A lifestyle of curating ideas is one where you purposefully choose to read books and articles that will fill a commonplace book. Which means you should be reading like a mad man (or woman).

Even if it means reading the same thing over and over again.

William Faulkner wrote a short story called “Pantaloon in Black” that I cannot stop reading. It is in his collection Go Down, Moses. I’ve only read three other stories in that collection — “Pantaloon in Black” is that seductive.

The main character, sprawling in grief after his young wife dies, is in constant, self-destructive motion. Always striding, lifting, drinking. Thus, the plot is a fluid, manic current.

Unstoppable and fatal.

It is a wonder to read. And I want to write like that. But better.

As Steven Pinker says and research suggests, studying the classic style will break you of your weakness for corporatese, academese, bureaucratese, and legalese — in other words, wordslaw.

The question is: how far are you willing to go for the right word?

The 5 Ingredients of a Great Marketing Story [Free Poster]

Story Header

More than a year ago, Sonia Simone wrote the defining piece on how to create a great marketing story.

The article summarizes what we believe at Copyblogger … and describes what we try to do with each article we write, podcast we record, and so on.

In honor of such a great article, Copyblogger Media designer Lauren Mancke and I thought it was high time we convert Sonia’s article into a sleek poster in the style of the outstanding storytellers from the era of silent films.

So, print it, pin it, but whatever you do … use it. Click here to download a PDF of the infographic, which is suitable for printing and hanging near your workspace when you need to see it most.


The Amazingly Simple Anatomy of a Meaningful Marketing Story [Infographic]

What’s your marketing story? How does your marketing story capture your audience’s attention? Why is it meaningful for your readers? Do you use these five elements or additional principles?

Share your thoughts. Brutal and all.

6 Ways an Empathy Map Can Make Your Headlines Even Sexier

Map Color

We all have our pet formulas. The go-to sources we love for great headline ideas.

For some it’s a swipe file full of head-turing advertising headlines. For others it’s scanning the headlines of their favorite magazines. Still others work their way through a set of templates like Jon Morrow’s Headline Hacks or Copyblogger’s Magnetic Headlines.

My old-standbys are the fifth chapter in a rugged copy of Tested Advertising Methods by John Caples and the four Us (unique, ultra-specific, useful, and urgent).

TAM-1

But write long enough and you’ll exhaust these sources and start looking for alternatives. Something to add a little juice to your headlines.

Having been in this business for nearly fifteen years I’ve worn out quite a few alternatives. And I’ve seen quite a few problems crop up, too. [Read more…]

Alienating Your Audience? Your Reading Habits Might Be the Problem, Study Says

Reading on a Kindle

Recent research suggests that reading Faulkner might make you kinder, gentler compared to reading Clancy, Gladwell, or nothing at all.

The results make sense.

Literary fiction is bent on perceiving reality through the eyes of the characters. Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” is a good example. Darl, Dewey Dell, Jewel, Vardaman, Cash, and so on, tell the story of Addie Bundsen’s death and burial from their point of view. Whether you can trust their POVs only adds to the suspense.

Popular fiction, on the other hand, chooses to put a high premium on the plot, with the main character getting the meat of the development. You see life through his or her eyes, but the stakes are often so high that little attention is paid to their interior lives.

By the way, I find this research ironic. Novelists in general tend to be anti-social. This paradox is stretched when you realize that a good novelist is also empathetic to the human condition.

But do literary novelists really care?

Their listening ability, one that isn’t beyond overhearing conversations not meant for their ears, is for selfish purposes. To get the story. The novelist isn’t a social scientist looking for ways to improve the human lot (for the most part).

He just needs material.

Like when Quentin Tarantino, as screenwriter, the modern equivalent of a novelist, overheard the notion that “Sicilian’s have nigger blood” and knew he had to use it. He found the perfect place in the conversation between Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper in True Romance.

And try to interrupt a novelist in the middle of his work. You will have your head removed. Try to engage a writer at dinner, and he will be dull, absent (unless he is lights-out drunk). Ask her out for coffee, and she will refuse.

So isn’t it funny that this cranky deadbeat whom we call a novelist can possibly help people navigate the emotionally sensitive waters of, say, a blind date or funeral or even blogging? I think it is. But what do I know … I’m as socially inept as they get. What do you think?

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Do This to Come Up with New Ideas

Bend in the Road

Some times I wish I’d not published a certain article on my site (or a guest blog) so I can publish it on Copyblogger.

While I’ll reach the largest audience there, the wait list is long, meaning I’d be sitting on more ideas than I’m comfortable with.

The conclusion I’ve come to is this: that that content is out there is a good thing. It is territory I’ve already covered.

I covered it out of necessity. The schedule demanded it and the audience needed it.

Now, I can move onto something else. A new challenge: how to write something without repeating myself. How to repackage an old idea so it seems new.

One of my greatest fears (outside of obscurity) is going stale.

Publishing what I write on a regular basis forces me to stay fresh. To limit over thinking and encourage more writing. It forces me to come up with new ideas.

And even if I don’t always succeed, I’m still practicing.

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This Metaphor Perfectly Describes How a Serious Writer Revises

Magical moment on Christmas afternoon

Editing a long document is sort of like shoveling snow off a sidewalk while it is still snowing.

It begins with a foot of snow (you dump a rough draft on to the blank page). You start to shovel (edit) down the sidewalk (page). You reach the end of the sidewalk (page), wipe your brow with your cap, and look behind you.

My goodness, you didn’t realize it started snowing while you were still shoveling (it hardly looks like your editing job put a dent in your rough draft).

You must keep shoveling. Pushing. Smoothing out the transition from one point to the next. Otherwise you have a clunky document. You have fragments stitched together. You have outsourced web writing.

A great document is seamless. A country road that rolls over the hills and bends through the turns like the landscape has known nothing else.

It feels effortless. Yet, is anything but.

Image source: magical moment one Christmas afternoon

How to Reduce the Despair of Your First Draft

Scaffolding

Your idea stretches out to the end of nowhere. One hundred words? One thousand?

That’s just one decision among many you must make before you write. And just one more decision that adds to your anxiety.

Fail to figure this one out and your idea sits idle. Deserted. Should this indecision persist, over time you’ll accumulate a storehouse of hollowed out concepts. Your very own creative blight.

Fortunately, scaffolding can help you avoid this mess.

Scaffolding is a notion I learned from Zadie Smith, the novelist, during a 2008 commencement speech given to students at Columbia University’s writing program.

The lecture is called “That Crafty Feeling” and you can find it in her book Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays.

She said when writing a novel (but this can apply to articles, blog posts, or even sales letters) you should use a framework. She called it a scaffolding. And she said why:

Use it to divide what seems like an endless, unmarked journey.

In other words, give it parameters. Create an endgame goal. Artificial or not.

But what sort of parameters?

  • This could be Joseph Campbell’s A Hero’s Journey.
  • A mock up of the twenty-seven chapters in the New Testament.
  • The frustrating narrative scheme Calvino devised in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.
  • Your favorite number, say seven (where you limit your blog post to only seven paragraphs, sentences, or words).
  • A model of the number of days in a year.
  • A formula like Problem-Agitate-Solve.
  • The five acts of a play.

Your choice. However: you must always remove any trace of the framework. You must make it your own.

For instance, you could use the 5 Ws to work through your first draft. Let’s say you wrote a piece about why you no longer drink.

In a normal setting you would open with the who. You re-arrange it to open with the why. And in the body you blend the four others (plus the how) into a list of examples, so that each entry you listed what you drank who you drank with, where you drank, how you drank, and when you drank.

  • I drank dollar cranberry vodkas to excess on Tuesday nights in an empty dance club.
  • I drank wine spritzers to excess in a hotel room on Wrightsville beach during summer break with people from high school.

You can mix up that formula to kill monotony. Then you close it out with a conclusion.

When someone reads your article they won’t read it and think you are using  the five Ws, unless she trains her eyes on it.

Speaking of training your eyes, what framework did I use to write this post?

Image source: Scaffolding

I Tested a Hemingway Short Story on the Hemingway App. Here’s the Result

hemingway

On this day, in 1961, Hemingway killed himself. Consider this a tribute of sorts.

So there’s this new browser app that allows you to write/drop content into a text box and click “Edit” to determine if your writing is “bold and clear.”

It’s called Hemingway.

  • Yellow highlight means long, complex sentence.
  • Red highlight means dense, very complicated sentences.
  • Blue highlights indicate adverbs (remove them).
  • Purple is for words that can be more simple. (Purple prose, get it?)
  • Green marks passive voice.

I ran The Efficient Writer: A Blunt Guide through it, and the grade was a seven.

Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 9.42.39 AM.png

You should gun for anything lower than a ten.

As you can see, I had one hard-to-read sentence (which was a quote), two very-hard-to-read sentences, and one passive sentence.

For kicks I thought to test one of Hemingways short story: Clean, Well-Lighted Place. You can see the results in the image below.

Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 9.30.09 AM.png

Here were other short stories I tested.

“Indian Camp”

Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 1.08.21 PM.png

Only one sentence was hard to read, no really hard sentences to read, but seven adverbs (you should use fewer than twenty-three!), ten words that could be simpler, and nine passive voice sentences (aim for fewer than thirty-one!).

“Hills Like White Elephants”

Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 1.09.10 PM.png

Then I noticed something about the results. Turns out the score is based upon a ratio of word count because …

“Snows of Kilimanjaro”

Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 1.10.14 PM.png

This story scored a 29, 59, 59, 22, 22 … which might look like this did a whole lot worse, but this was a much longer story (about ten times longer) … and so the number of hard sentences you can write, so on, goes up.

Moral of the story: Yes, Hemingway passes the Hemingway.

Give the Hemingway app try (and the writer, too, if you don’t know his work), and see if it doesn’t make your writing bold and clear. Report back here before the end of the day.

This post originally posted here.