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Home > Publications > Quill > Make your point; don’t back into a sentence


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Friday, December 1, 2006
Make your point; don’t back into a sentence

Commentary by Paula LaRocque

Let’s say we’re writing a story about how the earthquake in Hawaii may have affected tourism. We begin, as did this reporter:

“Even as damage estimates mounted on Hawaii’s Big Island after Sunday’s 6.7-magnitude earthquake a few miles off the northwest coast, tourist rhythms have largely returned to normal.

“Though widespread power outages disrupted flights and forced evacuations immediately following the strongest temblor to hit the state in more than 20 years, the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau reports that all hotels and main roads are open.”

Is that what the people at the Visitors & Convention Bureau said? And is it how they said it? Hmm. More likely: “Tourism has largely returned to normal.” That’s how most people talk. Subject. Verb. Object.

We back in, with some exceptions, when we begin a sentence with a preposition, verb or verbal or certain conjunctions and adverbs. Such sentences are easy to recognize. They begin with dependent phrases that delay the subject and fail to make a clear point immediately.

Good writers acknowledge the formulaic artifice of backing in, particularly with opening sentences. Yet newspapers are clogged with such structures. Why? Good question. We say: “You’re driving me nuts.” Not: “I am being driven nuts by you.” And certainly not: “Because you keep backing into your idea and delaying your point, you’re driving me nuts.”

Effective writing, like effective speaking, fashions direct, emphatic statements and gets right to the point. Many bulky back-ins can be fixed easily by beginning with the main assertion:

* “Amid allegations of extramarital affairs with female employees, illegal activity in trading accounts and the misuse of company aircraft, Robert J. O’Connell was unceremoniously fired as chief executive of the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. for cause by its directors in June of 2005.” (Robert J. O’Connell was unceremoniously fired in June 2005 because …)

* “With his name and image on Web sites and his appearance on the ‘Today’ show, Aleksey Vayner may be the most famous investment-banking job applicant in recent memory.” (Aleksey Vayner may be …)

Other back-ins can be redeemed simply by plunking the subject in front of the subordinate phrase:

* “Faced with twin political threats — a rising Islamic movement at home and diminished influence throughout the region — Egypt is pressing the United States for …” (Egypt, faced with a rising Islamic movement at home and diminishing influence in the region, is pressing the United States for …”)

Consider the following excerpts from a brief news feature. Does the constant backing in clarify or muddy the message?

1. “When recent college grads Matt ‘Fiddy’ Fidler and Scott MacDonald left New York Times Square last week on a hitchhiking mission to visit 50 state capitals in 50 days, the weapons in their marketing arsenal included a pocket digital camera and an account on YouTube, the Internet phenomenon that showcases more than 100 million video clips a day.

“Ten days and 14 states later, the young Jack Kerouacs had posted 14 short videos documenting their journey — and scored a segment on Yahoo Traveler Buzz, a daily video feature that’s part of a new online collaboration with Al Gore’s cable channel Current TV …”

2. “As the ranks of active home broadband users in the USA climb to an estimated 110 million — up more than a quarter from last year — online travel videos are expanding rapidly, too …”

3. “Once limited to old-school travelogues and animated brochures, many travel videos are …”

4. “But while the worldwide popularity of mainstream video sites can be a boon to armchair travelers — witness YouTube’s 34 videos of Bhutan — quality is decidedly spotty.”

Backing in damages that writing throughout. The lead is slowed by the “when” clause and, at 58 words, is more than twice the length it should be for reader comfort. The following simple revisions fix both leads and the sentences following them, with one exception. “Ten days and 14 states later” is a brief and undemanding phrase that lends desired emphasis without getting in the way. (Short and simple dependent phrases are seldom a problem unless overused.)

1. “Recent college grads Matt Fidler and Scott MacDonald left New York City last week on a hitchhiking mission to visit 50 state capitals in 50 days. The young Jack Kerouacs were armed only with a digital camera.

“And a YouTube account.

“Ten days and 14 states later, they’ve posted 14 short videos documenting their journey on YouTube, a video-sharing Internet site. They also scored a segment on Yahoo Traveler Buzz …

2. “The number of online travel videos has grown with the number of active home broadband users in the United States — now an estimated 110 million, up more than a quarter from last year.

3. “Travel videos that were once limited to old-school travelogues and animated brochures now reflect …

4. “Mainstream video sites can be a boon to armchair travelers — witness YouTube’s 34 videos of Bhutan. But quality is spotty.”

In short, we can often remedy back-ins as well as many other flawed writing practices if we remember that the unsayable is also the unreadable.



Paula LaRocque, former Dallas Morning News writing coach, is the author of “The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well” and “Championship Writing."

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