Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Don't write like Dali

Keeping sentences simple is one of the fundamental rules of writing. Artists can break these rules, but few of us are artists and those of us who write for a business readership should never aspire to art (at least, not on company time). 

In my more wretched moments of self-delusion, I might still dream that I can write a novel. Great novelists break all the rules: Cormac McCarthy, author of The Road and No Country For Old Men, can construct sentences of elegance and beauty that run to over 200 words; but he wouldn't write like that if he were explaining why the world is facing the danger of another recession.

Please don't write like this
Look at Picasso's painting Guernica: it creates an unforgettable image in the mind but it doesn't convey any facts about the bombing of a town. So, if you are asked to explain your methodology for forecasting GDP growth in the Eurozone, your reply should not mirror Picasso's explanation of Guernica: 
"If you give a meaning to certain things in my [economic anlaysis] it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously."
Thanks Pablo. Do I sell, buy or hold?
Take the Central Line and change at Bank
Dali's The Persistence of Memory is one of most memorable images in the history of art and speaks to us at an emotional level about the fluidity of our perception of time, which is why I don't really have five minutes to iron that shirt if I want to arrive at my meeting in good time. If I want to be punctual, the picture I'd carry in my pocket would look more like this

Similarly, Beethoven's 7th Symphony, which is playing as I write this, speaks to me on many levels, but it can't tell my how to wire the timer on my boiler, which is why I'm writing this at home while waiting for an engineer to call. (It doesn't help that the wiring diagram that came with the unit looks it was drawn by Rolph Scarlett.)

Clarity is rooted in simplicity, but that doesn't have to mean dullness. If the fundamental structure of a sentence is kept simple, then a lot of extra information and even some ornamentation can be added. Your basic sentence is formed by subject-verb-object: e.g. dog bites man. Your first task is to get those three in the right order and keep them that way.

Next up, try to keep the subject and the verb as close together as possible. Everything you put between a subject and its verb leaves the reader in mid-air, waiting for a resolution to the half-formed idea in his head. If the wait is too long, your grip will slip and the reader will fall. Your sentence has failed.

Then you can add subordinate clauses (preferably not at the start of the sentence), dates and times (usually near the end), and explanations (separated by brackets, em- or en-dashes, or bracketed commas). Then you can use more expressive verbs and nouns, and finally you can add a few well-chosen adjectives or adverbs. Just don't lose track of the simple sentence structure underlying it all, don't disrupt the order of that sentence and don't put anything between the subject and the verb.

And break any of these rules if you think it makes for a better sentence.*

Moral: If you keep it simple, you won't lose clarity
*I have broken most of these rules in this post


  1. How about using 'next' instead of 'next up'? Would that help?

  2. You're right. My entire argument collapses.

    More seriously, I try to write with a bit of colloquial informality. Having deleted the 'up' from 'next up' in other people's work, maybe I shouldn't use it myself and I certainly won't argue if it annoys others.

  3. Good points! I enjoyed this post.