Brevity and Clarity. The Short Sentence.

I will occasionally call your attention to articles I find in the paper we use as a textbook, for their news value, for their educational benefit, or out of a compulsion to share.

This one, from the a September 2013 edition, offers advice so helpful for students who want to avoid sounding pedantic that I’ve saved it for a year. Your writing courses may mistakenly have encouraged you to load up your essays with elaborate sentences crammed with tortured or even invented multisyllabicisms. Roy Peter Clark and I would like to warn you against making that mistake. Your language can and should be bold and clear.

I love short sentences, bold claims. Even fragments used effectively.

Like any other rhetorical device, they can be overused, but the reverse is worse. Endless paragraphs of wordy sentences that mindlessly repeat the same vague claims for no other reason than to satisfy a word count should and will be actively discouraged. I blame the word counts.

Express your 25-word idea in 25 words, not 250. Then have another 25-word idea and give it its due. String together enough 25-word ideas and you’ll have an essay that’s full of ideas, whatever its length. A grades go to writers who pack the most good ideas into their short essays.

Here’s an example of a student trying to pad too few ideas:

As a summer resident of Ocean City, NJ, I saw damage done by this storm locally and the damage was unbelievable. Luckily, I own a small condo elevated on the second floor of a converted motel raised approximately 8 feet above the ground. Although my home was not personally flooded or damaged, the amenities that our building provides were. All of the offices and game rooms on the first floor of our building suffered approximately 3 feet of water damage due to the rise of the back bay flooding our building and pools leaving the damages to rehabilitate our complex in the thousands. While fortunate enough to own a boat, I was lucky enough to not see any damage to it. Some friends and acquaintances of mine lost their boats due to sinking, docks completely ripped to shreds, and buildings demolished from winds and rising water levels. Although I have personal ties I recognize that the idea to rebuild is crazy.

The edited version

Ocean City, NJ was devastated by the storm. Our 2nd-floor summer condo was not flooded, but the offices and game rooms took on 3 feet of back bay water. Repairs will be expensive. Our boat was also undamaged, but our friends’ boats were sunk, their docks shredded, their buildings demolished by winds and flood. My affection for the town is genuine, but it would be crazy to rebuild.

About davidbdale

Inventor of and sole practitioner of 299-word Very Short Novels.
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