Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Short Sentences Add Punch

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Short Sentences Add Punch

Article excerpt

As a writer and teacher, I try to learn something about the craft every day. A gold coin of inspiration may come in my reading, in a conversation with another writer or even in the process of revising this essay.

I learned an important lesson, somewhat unwittingly, on July 19, 1975, while watching an interview with two of my favorite writers, William F. Buckley Jr. and Tom Wolfe. Mr. Wolfe was making fun of an art critic who had begun an essay with the sentence "Art and ideas are one."

"Now, I must give him credit for this," said Mr. Wolfe. "If you ever have a preposterous statement to make ... say it in five words or less because we're always used to five-word sentences as being the gospel truth."

The five-word sentence as the gospel truth.

Granted, Mr. Wolfe was being a little cynical, but the truth of what he was saying still applies. Express your most powerful thought in the shortest sentence.

In a 2006 article in The St. Petersburg Times, the writer Thomas French showed off this move, describing the memorable life and influential tenure in a Tampa zoo of a chimpanzee named Herman.

"All together," wrote Mr. French, "he lived at Lowry Park Zoo for 35 years. He lasted there longer than any other creature and longer than any of the humans. Each of the 1,800 animals at the zoo is assigned a number. His was 00001."

In an interview, Mr. French explained that the most telling detail in Herman's story was that number: 00001. Herman was Elvis, No. 1, the primal primate, Adam in this garden of captives.

Finding that number -- with all those zeros -- is good reporting; how Mr. French decided to use it is more revealing. He could have listed it in a catalog of details. Instead, to deliver it full force, he placed the magic number at the end of a paragraph at the end of a section in the story's shortest sentence. …

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