Monday, February 15, 2016

Writing in Plain Language, Part 5: Runaway Sentences


Fluency is a common first-draft problem. Most people think of nonfluent writing as choppy, awkward, disconnected phrasing from people who are unschooled in composing with a graceful style. But fluency can also result from overlong, convoluted constructions written by overeducated people who use a style unfit for the message they are conveying. Here is an example from the middle of an article in the New York Times, which is widely praised for a high-quality writing style:

On Tuesday, three days after the plane disappeared while on an overnight flight to Beijing, General Rodzali was quoted in a Malaysian newspaper as saying the military received signals on Saturday that after the aircraft stopped communicating with ground controllers, it turned from heading northeast to heading west, lowered its altitude and flew hundreds of miles across Peninsular Malaysia and out of the Strait of Malacca before the tracking went blank. ("Radar Blips Baffle Officials in Malaysian Jet Inquiry" by Thomas Fuller and Michael Forsythe, New York Times, March 12, 2014)

The problem with this sentence is not so much its 71-word length as its packing of at least 16 ideas, depending on how you count:

  1. General Rodzali was quoted on Tuesday.
  2. General Rodzali was quoted in a Malaysian newspaper.
  3. General Rodzali was quoted three days after the plane disappeared.
  4. The plane disappeared while on an overnight flight.
  5. The plane was heading to Beijing.
  6. General Rodzali was quoted as saying the military received signals.
  7. The signals received were on Saturday.
  8. The signals said that tracking of the plane went blank.
  9. The tracking went blank after the aircraft stopped communicating with ground controllers.
  10. The aircraft stopped communicating with ground controllers.
  11. The aircraft turned from heading northeast.
  12. The aircraft then headed west.
  13. The aircraft lowered its altitude.
  14. The aircraft flew hundreds of miles.
  15. The aircraft flew across Peninsular Malaysia.
  16. The aircraft flew out of the Strait of Malacca.

Many people cannot recall their mobile phone number, let alone 15 ideas they are reading for the first time. The ways to rewrite this sentence are nearly infinite, but the best way for purposeful writers to edit it is to start with the point that matters most to them. Here is one possibility:

Three days after the incident, a Malaysian newspaper quoted General Rodzali on Tuesday as saying the military received signals when the plane disappeared on a Saturday overnight flight to Beijing. The report states after the aircraft stopped communicating with ground controllers, it turned from heading northeast to heading west, lowered its altitude and flew hundreds of miles across Peninsular Malaysia and out of the Strait of Malacca before tracking went blank.

The original one 71-word sentence has become two sentences totaling 71 words (30 and 41). The word count is not the big deal. But the revision separates the Malaysian newspaper's quoting of the general from the detailed events of the aircraft, making the reading more understandable.

When editing a  convoluted sentence, separate the ideas you are advancing based on the keys points of your message. Your communication will seem plainer and more digestible.