A journalist warns colleagues: Long sentences can lead to ‘extreme wackiness’

Here is Lee Zion’s farewell memo to colleagues at the Manchester (CT) Journal Inquirer:

Good night, and good luck
August 31, 2014 at 11:43 p.m.

To the staff of the JI:

Something I wanted to warn you all about is long sentences. When sentences exceed 30 words, any number of bad things can happen. Subjects and verbs that don’t agree, tense changing in the middle of the sentence, pronouns that don’t have antecedents, and so on. But the biggest problem of all is long sentences have a knack for creating unintended silliness. I found plenty of long sentences in my time here, and three of these led to extreme wackiness. This is what I found while proofing pages at the Journal Inquirer:

May 20: “A local man was arrested early Friday morning on charges that he stole a truck from a local company after police located the vehicle in Bristol with his cellphone inside, according to a police report.”

This sentence is 35 words, and it says the suspect stole the truck AFTER police located the vehicle. Can’t you just see the master thief planning and plotting as he waits for the police to locate the vehicle, so then he can steal it? It sounds like something out of the “Lupin III” cartoon show!/CONTINUES

May 30: “A Hartford woman with a history of larceny convictions was arrested Thursday on charges that she dragged an officer who was holding on to her vehicle’s door while investigating a shoplifting complaint.”
This time, it’s 32 words, and it says the police officer was holding on to her vehicle’s door WHILE investigating a shoplifting complaint. That also sounds like something out of “Lupin III” — there’s Zenigata, earnestly holding on to the car door as it’s driving off, and shouting, “But I CAN’T let go! I’m investigating a shoplifting complaint!”

June 26: “Police say they found a charred glass pipe commonly used to smoke crack cocaine in Brown’s pants pocket, along with two codeine pills.”

OK, only 23 words this time, but it’s the same sort of mistake. How often do people smoke crack cocaine in Brown’s pants pocket? Not even Lupin and his pals are that amazing.

The reason I bring up this silliness is I take my work seriously. If I find anything wacky, someone else might find it, too. And if readers laugh at something that isn’t supposed to be funny, then the paper loses credibility. I don’t want that.

And YOU don’t want it either. Imagine sending your stories out to potential employers, and then they find your mistakes. That could cost you that dream job you wanted — the one in Hawaii.

If the editor reviewing your resume is anything like me, he or she will spend the whole day humming the theme song to “Lupin III.” That editor MIGHT hire you anyway, hoping to train you out of the habit of long sentences. Either that, or your resume gets tossed in the trash in favor of someone who’s easier to work with. And you’re stuck here.

Long sentences lead to mistakes that cost you money. And if you don’t believe that it costs you money, ask your supervisor if you can just skip this little furlough thing.

So for God’s sake, keep you sentences short! Don’t put gobs of information together like that, and your copy will be cleaner and clearer.

Just about any sentence longer than 30 words can either be trimmed or separated into two sentences. This is true of about 999 out of every 1,000 long sentences I encounter. Some editors even have a rule that the first sentence of a story should be no more than 17 words. I will never go that far, but I urge you to take the 30-word rule seriously.

That first example I cited at the top could have been fixed easily by putting a period after the word “company,” deleting the word “after,” and starting a new sentence with “Police located … ” The second example also could have been fixed by putting a period after “door,” then starting a new sentence: “He had been called to the site to investigate a separate shoplifting complaint.” (Which, by the way, was something I didn’t know when I first read that sentence. Somebody else had to explain that part to me. So, splitting the sentence in two makes for an easier read and gets rid of silliness and makes the meaning more clear.)

The third sentence could have been fixed with a simple rephrasing: “Police say they searched Brown’s pockets and found … ”

Long sentences get away from the reader. Long sentences get away from the writer, as you have just seen. Please keep this in mind.

And if you’re wondering why I never mentioned this before, the answer is simple: I WASN’T ALLOWED TO. I am not supposed to go up to a reporter and say anything, but instead must pass that message on to someone else. That someone else was supposed to send the message on, but apparently, nobody ever did.

To make things worse, two of the wacky sentences I cited above made it into the paper unchanged, even though I had flagged this so the person in charge of that page could see it. This person, however, disagreed and let the page stand on two occasions. That means readers had a chance to ridicule the stupid reporters and stupid editors, even though I edited that page and am not stupid.

Imagine my frustation at not being allowed to fix the problem. Imagine my frustration at not being listened to when I attempted to let others know about that problem. Apparently, people protecting their own little fiefdoms is more important than putting out a quality product. At least I stopped that sentence about the car door.

You don’t have to cry for me, however. I am entering a new position where I will finally be allowed to do my job. I will work twice as hard as I did here — 60- or 70-hour weeks. But I will earn more money than what I made here, and no furloughs, either. Between that and the lower cost of living in Virginia, I’ll have about twice as much left once taxes, rent, utilities, health insurance and so forth are taken out.

Now, if I had asked for permission to send this e-mail, I would have been told I don’t have the authority. But now that I no longer work here, I don’t have to listen to such nonsense. After all, this is my last day here, and the minute I hit “send,” I am walking out the door, leaving for a place where I DO have that authority.

My final advice is to anyone who ignored me when I flagged these mistakes and begged that they be corrected. You are not just hurting the credibility of the paper. You are frustrating the guy who points them out, while also costing these reporters money. Next time, please LISTEN!


Lee Zion

Update — Zion writes in an email: “I was the ‘associate editor’ at the Journal Inquirer. …From 8 a.m. today until the rest of my life (perhaps) I will be the editor at a small-town weekly newspaper in Smithfield, Va. — the Smithfield Times. The small-town newspapers allowed me to have direct contact with reporters, something I greatly missed in Connecticut.”

* “The bigger lesson here is never make references to long-forgotten Japanese cartoons while trying to drive home some grand point on sentence structure” (facebook.com)