Yoda’s guide to writing

At my “regular” job I keep a record of the longest sentence written by someone in the organisation. (Hey, everyone needs a hobby.)

A couple of days ago that record was 75 words, and the sentence could have easily been used as a form of torture. “Okay, I want you to read this sentence without taking a breath.”

I didn’t think it would ever be beaten, but yesterday I realised I was wrong.

About 20 words wrong.

That right: a 95-word sentence. Just for a laugh I pasted it into Word and checked out the readability statistics. It had a Flesch Reading Ease of 0.0 (no real surprises there) and a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 39.4. That means you’d have to be at school pretty much your entire life to understand it. (And for those of thinking, “That’s doable”, you have to pass as well.)

The rest of the document wasn’t quite as bad, but it was still a hard slog to get through.

Unfortunately I then had to make it readable.

This is why I often curse my role as an editor. If I was editing a magazine I could probably ask for a rewrite, or even tell them it’s just not good enough (“We regret to inform you that your article is unsuitable for our publication”, or whatever the current rejection phrase is these days). But I don’t have that luxury, and so I spent the next three hours banging it into shape.

The thing is, I could see this person was trying to write. Really trying. And maybe that was the problem.

It’s almost as if they imagined themselves stepping onto a podium to deliver a speech. So they started using Big Words and Long Sentences because it needed to sound Very Important. And they know you can’t step up to a podium and speak for three minutes, so they made it Really Long.

And then gave it to me to fix.

Most of the time I can bring an article’s word count down by around five percent. For this one it was more like 20 percent. Sure, there was a bit of restructuring, and I did remove a few redundant phrases. But for the most part I just got rid of the Big Words, chopped up the Long Sentences, and got them off that damned podium.

(In retrospect it would have been quicker to read the document, write down the main points, and then write it myself from scratch. Unfortunately I then get involved in arguments about style, and how I shouldn’t be changing theirs just because I want to.)

Now I’ve been asked to edit a book manuscript for a friend of mine. That right: an entire 140-odd page manuscript. And I can’t wait to get started.

Why? Because when she writes there’s no podium. Instead she gets off the stage, sits with the audience and says, “Let’s have a chat, shall we?” There won’t be any Long Sentences. There won’t be any Big Words. (Well, no more than necessary. She is writing about Information Architecture, after all.) And it will only be as long as it needs to be. I doubt very much if I’ll achieve my five percent cut in word length, but that’s because it will be pretty tight already.

She didn’t try to write it. She just wrote it.

Yoda once said, “Do, or do not. There is no ‘try’”. He was talking about Luke Skywalker using The Force to lift rocks, but he could just as easily been talking about the writing process.

If you’re going to write, don’t try to write. Just write.

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Sarah Mitchell March 4, 2010, 12:33 am

    Hi Bill,

    There’s nothing like someone trying to sound official or serious or authoritative to get that word count up! I would love to see both the 75 word sentence and the longer one, too. That kind of stuff makes me tick.

    I enjoyed this post. Good luck with editing the manuscript. It sounds like a fun gig.

  • Nathan Bush March 4, 2010, 8:43 am

    So Bill are you saying that in order to be a good writer you should think less? Because I think I can do that…

  • altait March 4, 2010, 1:06 pm

    Yoda is the smartest – was going to write man, but then realised that wasn’t going to work. Will start again. Anyone who quotes Yoda is all right by me. I agree with your thinking 100 per cent. Loving your blog!

  • Lorena March 4, 2010, 3:52 pm

    95! Impressive. You must be a technical editor… I think that beats my engineers’ longest, though not the funniest. (The funniest was in a proposal where the section’s opening line was: “We are the best.” Obviously there was no need for a full proposal to be written).


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