Word Play

by Randy Petersen

My first job out of college was editing prayer letters for a mission agency. I admired the missionaries who penned these epistles, but most of them weren’t writers.

During one lazy afternoon at my desk, I tried an experiment. Taking a letter that was badly overwritten, I applied all the Strunk & White guidelines. No passives. Verbs over nouns. Few adjectives. Short sentences. I managed to cut the verbiage in half.

While it was better than the rambling document I started with, it seemed stark, robotic.

I tried again, this time going halfway on those improvement measures.  I allowed some verbs of being and passive constructions. The best modifiers got to stay. If compound sentences tumbled down in an orderly manner, I looked the other way.

This turned out to be the best version of the day.

Learning to Read

Eight years later, I got a freelance job editing books for a literacy project. The publisher gave me two rules: no word more than two syllables and no sentence more than fourteen words. This seemed arbitrary to me, especially the syllables. I could use rhythm, which seems difficult for a novice reader, but not harmonica, which could be easily sounded out. Yet those were the rules and they paid me to follow them.

Despite my initial objections, I found it a great training experience. Through this project, I honed my ability to write simply and clearly. I recommend it as an exercise for you. Could you take a paragraph you’ve written and rewrite it with these two rules? Is the result better or worse? I’m not suggesting this is the way to write everything, but it might give you the ability to tighten your style when you need to.

An Editor’s Wisdom

Let me fast-forward a few more years to an extremely helpful interaction with an editor—though I wasn’t too crazy about it at the time. The editor, whose name was Tim (one of the few details I recall about the incident), asked me for a rewrite of something, and I was initially shocked. My pride kicked in. A professional writer for more than a decade, I had developed a crisp style that many editors liked. It wasn’t weighed down with academic ostentation or religious jargon. And I had learned a lot from that literacy project: compact words in tight sentences.

Tim dared to tell me that my writing was punchy. Noun-verb. Noun-verb. One short sentence after another. I had prided myself on a punchy style—more journalistic than devotional, I thought—but Tim was right. Punchy prose makes readers feel that they’re getting punched. It’s not enjoyable to read.

“Change it up,” Tim said. “Vary your rhythm. A long sentence can be clear if its ideas are in order. And the variation can create a pleasant reading experience.”

The Adams Family

One more stop on this journey of discovery.  Today. I’m working on a project now, creating a collection of material quoted from American Christians of the last four centuries. It’s a fascinating study in styles of communication and how they’ve changed. In general, writers of the past were far more verbose than their modern counterparts. I can’t rewrite these quotations, but I can cut them off when they start to wander. (Ellipses are such wonderful tools!)

But my overwhelming impression about previous generations of wordsmiths is that they loved to write. Abigail Adams took five sentences to tell her husband what I could edit down to one, but clearly she was having a great time finding different ways to make her point. For her, and for many in past centuries, writing was not merely a conduit for ideas; it was a sport, an art, a pastime. Writing was their YouTube.

So maybe it’s okay to use a five-dollar word once in a while—for the fun of it. Maybe a run-on sentence could reflect something delightful about my state of mind. Maybe there’s a pleasing rhythm in a well-turned sentence. Maybe I can forget the rules once in a while and just play.

Fly a Little

The brilliant Joyce Ellis wrote a great piece in this space recently urging us to tighten up on verbal constructions that are redundant or unnecessarily wordy. She is absolutely right. Tight language keeps the reader’s energy with you, and it can free up space elsewhere in your writing (especially if you’re on a word count).

But good writing is not always short writing. Sometimes you need to spread your wings and fly. Have fun with it, and bring your readers along. Let your sentences be as long as they need to be, as we celebrate our delight in this gift of language.