Powerfully Minimalist: Writing Effective Sentences
Consider this sentence: “Baby shoes: for sale, never worn.”
The power of a sentence is legendary. In fact, the opening line in a novel is so important, Stephen King reportedly invests months and years constructing that first sentence. And it paid off: 33 years later, the line that launched The Dark Tower series, “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed“, is embedded in pop culture consciousness.
In college, our professors wanted us to write academic papers with sentences as long as a locomotive and more convoluted than a David Lynch film. In blog writing, however, the most important factor is how long you can hold the interest of a reader, not your bombastic delivery or jargon.
If it’s not your style, then, what makes a great sentence?
Contrary to what most believe, sentences that are too short are as bad as sentences that are too long. It’s not about how few the words are in a sentence, but about making each word tell the right thing.
A great sentence is succinct. It relates complete information in as few words as possible. A fine point to illustrate this is the laconic phrase, invented by our friends in Sparta.
According to the story, Philip II of Macedon’s conquest of Greece is nearly complete, and only Sparta stood in his way. Confident of his imminent victory, he probably laid back and engaged in some good old-fashioned trash talk, telling Sparta:
“If I win this war, you will be slaves forever.”
Sparta, not to be outdone, replied “If“.
That one-word response was so powerful, Philip left Sparta alone. Alexander the Great took this lesson from his dad and steered clear of Sparta, going on to invade Persia instead. Apparently, the Persian Empire had a shortage of people who can craft witty (and effective) comebacks.
A great sentence is clear, free of pretense, and speaks to the reader. It means that no matter how silly or illogical the subject matter is, the sentence relates it in as undiluted way as possible.
Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis opens with this line: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” This sentence, no matter how absurd it seems, evokes a vivid image by virtue of its clarity of description.
Do away with unnecessary ambiguity. The Economist reinforces the idea that clarity of writing means clarity of thought. Know exactly what you want to say, to whom you are saying it, and how you want to say it; everything will fall into place the moment you know all three.
A great sentence is intriguing. In content writing, “Think PINC” is a concept that urges writer to create a copy that has Promise, Intrigues readers, creates Need, packaged in great Content. Normally, we frown on buzzwords, but we believe that this guideline applies to sentences as much as it does to entire copies.
In Fredric Brown’s iconic short story “Knock”, the first two sentences are complete by themselves: “The last man on earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.” These two sentences bait readers into reading further, because they fulfill the PINC rule (the “promise” part is slightly different in fiction, though, because it already promises entertainment).
Twitter is an excellent platform to practice concise writing. This is because in Twitter, you can only send a message that is 140 characters long, a shade shy of our 156-character meta descriptions.
Practice brief and compact writing by “tweeting” a complete story in 140 characters, spaces included. You do not have to reply here, just practice this on your own (although we would be delighted to read your pieces on the comment box below).
Concluding an article is almost as important as starting one, and for the next blog we’ll probably tackle that. But, as Stephen King famously concludes in The Eyes of the Dragon, “But now the hour is late, and all of that is another tale, for another day.“