Friday, February 22, 2013

Style Standards, Part 2: Begin with the Most Important Point

An engineer (let’s call him Ben) for working on a construction project (let’s call it the Main Street Expansion) for a private architectural-engineering firm (say, XYZ Corporation) wrote this 23-word sentence in his first draft: 
The reason that the decision was made by XYZ for the suspension of the Main Street Expansion had to do with safety concerns.

After I told Ben that the sentence was wordy, he edited it to a 16-word second draft: 
The reason that XYZ made the decision to suspend the Main Street Expansion was safety concerns.

Ben surely improved the sentence to a more concise version by eliminating verbiage caused by the passive verb (was made), the double prepositional phrase (for the suspension of the construction project), and the colloquialism (had to do with).

But by being true to his original sentence syntax (word order), he missed a key point, which would have made his sentence even more concise—and far more powerful. I told Ben to forget about his command of language and to look for the most important point of his edited version. He chose the words suspend and safety. Since his client was a municipal agency, I asked him what he thought the agency would see as the most important word.

“Safety,” he answered.

“Then start there,” I said. After some reflection, Ben rewrote the sentence: 
Safety concerns compelled XYZ to suspend the Main Street Expansion.

The third draft is now a more power-packed 10 words. What happened? Draft 2 still spends 7 words drawing attention to the decision-making process rather than the issue of common concern. By beginning the third draft with safety, Ben had to think about a more energetic verb. The extra time he took led to a worthwhile result.

So when reviewing overlong sentences, forget about all the rules of syntax and diction; just start with the most important point. This practice will go a long way toward making your writing more powerful.