I continue my series on writing style with lesson 6 in Williams and Colomb’s book Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (10th Edition). This lesson is the last of part 2 of the book’s five parts. Part 2 is the longest in the book and the subject has been clarity. In the previous lesson, Williams and Colomb’s focused on the importance of writing sentences that begin with the more familiar material, allowing new and more difficult material to be placed at the end of a sentence. Additionally, we learned that the subjects of sentences in a passage should be few, should relate to each other, and should contain the topic of the passage and these should be short and as concrete as possible. By doing this, readers will think our writing is both cohesive and coherent.
This lesson moves the focus to the end of the sentence where they make two primary points: one about clarity and the other emphasis.
Concerning Clarity. Williams and Colombs make the useful observation that the momentum built in an easy first nine or ten words of a sentence will carry a reader through more complicated material at the tail end. So it is important to put complex ideas and technical terms at the end of a sentence. Readers will find this more readable. “The general principle is to carry the reader not from complexity to simplicity, but from simplicity to complexity”.
In general, your sentences should begin with elements that are relatively short: a short introductory phrase or clause, followed by a short, concrete subject, followed by a verb expressing a specific action. After the verb, the sentence can go on for several lines, if it is well constructed (85).
Concerning Emphasis. The other point with respect to the end of a sentence is stress or emphasis. The end of the sentence is where the stress falls. Consequently, it is important to thoughtfully construct the ending of sentences so that the most important and most memorable material is placed at the end of a sentence. They put it concisely: “Just as you look at the first few words of your sentence for focus, you can look at the last few words for emphasis” (87).
To revise sentences to ensure that you emphasis the right things and end your sentences strongly, the authors recommend four strategies:
1. Trim dead weight off the end of your sentences.
2. Shift peripheral ideas to the left.
3. Shift new information to the right.
4. Avoid repeating words at the end.
Here’s a tip:
You can easily check whether you have stressed the right words by reading sentences aloud [by the way, I was told Tom Wright reads all his writing out loud, although I’m not certain that this is accurate information]: as you speak the last few words, raise your voice and tap the table with your fingers. If you’ve stressed the wrong words, your voice and table thumping will feel wrong (89).
One final recommendation about the end of a sentence that is very important:
Put key words in the stress position of the first sentence of a passage [paragraph or even essay] in order to emphasize the key ideas that form a connecting thread through the rest of the passage.
I learned something similar in my homiletics course at Dallas Theological Seminary as part of the introduction of a sermon (called the “preview”) and Dr. Bruce Winter taught me a similar lesson early in my studies at Cambridge when writing an academic paper or essay. Provide a sentence in the introduction that makes mention of the key ideas of the essay. I’ve used this technique ever since.