Sunday, February 3, 2013

Never Make Readers Suffer Through Your Prose

But it is that extra step that will put you into meaningful contact with the world of forms and help you begin the journey that will end with your being a fully enfranchised and informed citizen of that world.
--Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence

I know it seems like a bad joke, but the sentence above comes from a book about the art of good sentence writing, and it's one of the worst sentences I've ever read. Let's figure out exactly what's wrong with it.

First, omit needless words. This author clearly forgot the most important rule of good writing.

Second, how about some punctuation? I'd challenge anyone to read this thirty-nine word monstrosity aloud without suffocating. Let your readers breathe.

Third, eliminate unnecessary modifiers. Phrases like meaningful contact and fully enfranchised and informed probably sound intelligent to this author, but in reality they are textbook examples of lazy writing. Find a single word that does the job.

Fourth, this sentence contains far too many prepositional phrases. Phrases like that will put you into, with the world of, begin the journey that, and with your being do nothing but confuse and mislead the reader. Good sentences express one or two clear and tightly-phrased ideas, not several convoluted and wordy ideas.

Fifth, stop showing off. Pretentious language, long sentences and pseudo-intellectual jargon don't communicate your ideas, they communicate disdain for your audience. Never make your readers suffer through your prose.