Long Paragraphs Aren’t Cool

PERHAPS the train breakdown last Tuesday made us all cranky, The Straits Times included. In their July 10 editorial, Disruption Deja Vu All Can Do Without, the editorial team concluded their commentary with two chunky, back-to-back paragraphs.

What does Professor Strunk, author of The Elements of Style, have to say about long paragraphs?

Enormous blocks of print look formidable to readers,
who are often reluctant to tackle them.

We offer suggestions on how to break the last (and longer) paragraph, as well as other editorial tweaks. You’ll also get to see us pondering over our diction: should one refer to SMRT’s task as gargantuan or Herculean? And would you have used forthwith or without delay to urge the SMRT folks to snap into action?

***
Unless you have a stylistic reason for doing so—say you’re describing a moment of high drama in a piece of fiction or non-fiction—you should avoid long, chunky paragraphs entirely. They are irksome to the eyes, tiring on the mind, and aesthetically disagreeable.

It’s exactly the kind of feeling you get from reading something like this:

In fairness, much has been accomplished untiringly by its team, contributing to a 91 per cent public satisfaction rating for public transport last year. It has a gargantuan task on its hands and “conflicting sets of priority in terms of resources, time and manpower”, as Mr Kuek has noted. It is doing its best, but frustrated commuters might be forgiven for wondering if that is good enough. One might also ask if a fundamental shift is needed in management’s approach to service reliability. SMRT is now giving priority to work on the third rail, sleepers and signalling system as these will yield far more enduring outcomes. While a long view is needed, the here and now must not be sidelined. Consider the scale of the disruptions, the knock-on effects felt by the economy, and the damage to the city’s reputation for clockwork efficiency. What would be politic is a demonstration of management’s determination to achieve higher standards of reliability forthwith, no matter what it takes. Crisis recovery and contingency plans, which the SMRT has pledged yet again to improve, should also see immediate transformation. A sense of deja vu would be most unwelcome if calamity strikes again. 
[198 words]

Disruption Deja Vu All Can Do Without
ST Editorial
The Straits Times, 10 July 2015

*

Now, I hope I haven’t lost you in the puddle of prose, but please stay with me. Let’s break the excerpt into palatable chunks, as well as toss in some editorial touch-ups:

In fairness, its team has worked hard at restoring confidence in its rail reliability, scoring a 91-per cent public satisfaction rating for public transport last year. Still, it has a Herculean task and, as Mr. Kuek noted, “conflicting sets of priority in terms of resources, time and manpower.” It is doing its best, but will frustrated commuters think it is good enough? 

The question SMRT must seriously ask is this: Should there be a fundamental shift in its approach to service reliability? 

Yes, they are now giving priority to work on the third rail, sleepers and signalling system as these will yield far more enduring outcomes. But while a long view is needed, the here and now must not be sidelined. Consider the scale of the disruptions, the knock-on effects felt by the economy, and the damage to the city’s reputation for clockwork efficiency.

What would be politic is a demonstration of management’s determination to achieve higher standards of reliability without delay, no matter what it takes. That includes their crisis recovery and contingency plans, which they have pledged yet again to improve. We don’t need another disruption déjà vu.  [192 words]

Disruption Déjà Vu We Can All Do Without
ST Editorial
The Straits Times, 10 July 2015

1. Change the first sentence from passive to active voice, following the writing tip “prefer the active voice,” which makes for brighter, livelier, more dynamic sentences.

2. Add a hyphen to “91-per cent” because it is an adjective.

3. Use the adverb “Still” as a transition, reinforcing the nagging quality of SMRT’s rail troubles.

4. Change “gargantuan” to “Herculean”. The first means “enormous”;  the second, “requiring great strength of effort.” As far as prudent diction goes, the second serves us better.

5. Comma, always, inside the quote mark, when it’s followed by an attributive phrase (“as Mr. Kuek has noted”). I also placed the attributive phrase at the beginning, rather than at the end of the quote. It sounds better.

  • It has a gargantuan task on its hands and “conflicting sets of priority in terms of resources, time and manpower”, as Mr Kuek has noted. [25]
  • Still, it has a Herculean task and, as Mr. Kuek noted, “conflicting sets of priority in terms of resources, time and manpower.” [22]

6. Toss, toss, toss out the “frustrated” customers, their being “forgiven,” their “wondering.” Make your sentences simple, clear, forceful. I opted for a rhetorical question:

  • It is doing its best, but frustrated commuters might be forgiven for wondering if that is good enough. [18]
  • It is doing its best, but will frustrated commuters think it is good enough? [14]

7. Use a direct question for greater clarity and force. See how much weaker the sentence is when framed as an indirect speech. Notice also the difference in effect between the two pronouns, “One” versus “SMRT”—the first is vague, the second specific:

  • One might also ask if a fundamental shift is needed in management’s approach to service reliability. [16]
  • The question SMRT must seriously ask is this: Should there be a fundamental shift in its approach to service reliability? [20]

8. Change “forthwith” to “without delay.” I didn’t care for the formal, lofty tone. I wanted something that spoke to the masses.

9. Why state the obvious? Of course, “A sense of deja vu would be most unwelcome if calamity strikes again.” No one needs to tell us that. So I changed the last line to capture a stern warning, echoing the words from the headline, “déjà vu disruption.” If you like, use the accent marks on déjà to reflect the French provenance of the word.

10. Add “we” to the title; it lends a warmth and resonance that identifies with the angst and frustration of the people, versus the more distant original:

  • Disruption Déjà Vu All Can Do Without 
  • Disruption Déjà Vu We Can All Do Without

We invite you to share your thoughts if you have other editorial suggestions, or write us at viv@mywritinghome.com if you have any curious, odd encounters with language you’d like us to feature and fix.

Improve It!” offers insights on how to revise, rewrite, snip, edit, move words around for style, clarity, and conciseness. We take a short extract from an article, polish it, and show you how and why we made the changes we did.

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