Another Simple Way to Make Your Sentences Sparkle—Lose Punctuation

file7091266105841I once heard a writer say that the only punctuation mark that we ever need is a period. He exaggerated, of course. And, he made a point.

In an earlier post, I noted that you can immediately give your writing more impact by putting the payload at the end of a sentence. A closely related suggestion is to see how much punctuation you can lose.

Check your drafts for sentences that are packed with dashes, semicolons, colons, and commas. These sentences tend to impose cognitive burdens on readers through:

  • subordinate clauses
  • parenthetical phrases
  • qualifications and exceptions to the main point
  • sheer length

The result is a sentence that readers must untangle to understand. Many won’t bother, especially if they’re reading online.

I am not advising that we avoid complex sentences altogether. My suggestion is to use them consciously and consider the alternatives.

If you want to find examples of long sentences with internal punctuation, just check almost any newspaper. I am surprised by how many news article leads consist of one long sentence. For example:

Opponents of a state website for online voter registration called its implementation the equivalent of stealing from taxpayers in a spirited court hearing Friday over a legal challenge to the system, while the state countered that it has the legal authority to create a system that will likely save money.

Yikes! That’s a 50-word sentence. Let’s just get rid of the comma and the following word:

Opponents of a state website for online voter registration called its implementation the equivalent of stealing from taxpayers in a spirited court hearing Friday over a legal challenge to the system. The state countered that it has the legal authority to create a system that will likely save money.

Better, no? With a single edit, we:

  • Shaved 19 words off the first sentence.
  • Gave the reader a chance to breathe before tackling the next sentence.
  • Emphasized the payload of the first sentence — challenge to the system — by putting it right before the period.

We fixed just one sentence here. But think of the cumulative effect of such edits when you do them to hundreds of sentences in your book manuscript. The result is a quantum leap in the readability of your writing.