Skills for journalists in print and digital media

Writing stuff: Dependent clause openings — no!

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“Writing stuff” is a collection of small but enduring points on how to improve writing. Pick one. Give it a try. Pick another. Carry on.

Want to drain your writing of focus and energy? Use dependent clause openings as much as possible. I was reminded of this recently while editing a profile.

The profile used the “layer cake” approach, alternating scenes with short blocks of background information. Shifting back and forth between the scenes, where narrative storytelling techniques are required, and the straight news prose of the background blocks made the damage caused by dependent clause openings all the more vivid.

Dependent clauses hurt straight news prose. But they occur all the time as part of the larger fog of “journalese” and the faux authority of hackneyed news writing. In this case the young reporter was simply switching material but not voice and the dependent clauses were everywhere.

One element of strong narrative writing is the use of concise active voice sentences. Action unfolds. People do things, react to things, and the reader follows the stream of action. Unless they start running into constructions like this:

For the past two years, Cooper has given the gallery a whole new image by featuring local artists willing to take chances.

A simple fix would be:

Cooper spent the past two years giving the gallery a whole new image by featuring local artists willing to take chances.

Better might be:

Cooper featured artists the past two years who were willing to take chances. The shows created a whole new image for the gallery.

The “journalese” voice at its worst is a dull report, a string of facts, too often strung together in long sentences where the real point is lost. One way to combat that and force yourself to write shorter, most vibrant sentences is to take out those dependent clause openings and see where the action leads.


Written by mroberts8

04/12/2010 at 5:13 pm

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