Friday, January 6, 2012

Busted!— caught packing a loaded sentence

It was Christmas afternoon, my older son was curled up on the couch with a book I’d given him, and he wouldn’t stop giggling.

The book was You Might be a Zombie and Other Bad News, from the editors of, and I'd known as soon as I saw the title that the book would be a perfect gift for my son. I hadn't necessarily planned to purchase anything the fall day I'd been browsing through my local bookstore, but a quick flip through confirmed the notion, and soon thereafter my Christmas shopping season had officially begun.

This son is 24 and I’ve read aloud to him his whole life long. A fringe benefit is that he also likes to read aloud to me. So when I asked him what was so funny, he started reading from a chapter called “Four Things Your Mom Said Were Healthy That Can Kill You.” The countdown was in reverse order and began with #4: Exercising.

He read:
Exercise is good for you. Exercise is hard. Therefore the more you exercise, the better off your body will be, right? There’s no better example of this line of reasoning than the marathon, which is named for the legendary Greek messenger who ran 26.2 miles from a battle in Marathon to Athens, announced to the general assembly, “We won,” and promptly dropped dead.

Maybe it's my love of the thought of exercising, or the number of cookies attempting digestion in my belly—or who knows, maybe it's just an editor thing. But I already found this set-up funny, with its short sentences, simple logic, triumphant backstory, and swift, understated climax. But in this post I want to focus on the next sentence:

Ignoring the cautionary-tale shape to that story arc, the modern fitness movement made the recreation of the mythical death sprint their de facto symbol of peak physical condition (the ancient Greco-Roman sports of nude wrestling and lion fighting were presumably dismissed as too gay and too cruel to animals, respectively).

I loved hearing this sentence so much I asked my son to read it again. It won’t be funny once I’m done dissecting it—analysis is such a buzz kill—but hopefully I can point out a few things about great writing.

1. It is concise. Even the word “that,” which can be removed to the betterment of most sentences, is a simple yet vital means of identifying the focus of the commentary to come.

2. It makes you feel smart. The unidentified author uses language just esoteric enough that you feel like an insider for grasping the concepts: “story arc,” “modern fitness movement,” “de facto symbol.” By engaging your mind to create relationships rather than spoon-feeding, the prose draws you in.

3. The words chosen convey both concrete and applied meaning. “Ignoring the cautionary-tale shape,” “mythical death sprint.” Further, equating the three-word “mythical death sprint” with the symmetrical “peak physical condition” is quite funny.

4. Modern socio-political movements (gay rights, cruelty to animals) are retroactively applied to ancient practices in a way that suggests a timeless truth—people were always a little “cracked.”

5. It has a great sound. Say the sentence out loud. Enjoy the hard c’s, the “sh” sounds and the s’s, the “p” versus the “ph,” the repetition of “too.”

Have trouble writing like that? Don't worry. This kind of charged, taut prose rarely rolls from mind to keyboard in a first attempt, but it is well worth striving for in further drafts. Reading aloud is a great way to check your progress.

How about you—enjoyed any good sentences lately?

Kathryn Craft specializes in developmental editing at, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."

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  1. Love, but I've had to ban myself since I lost three hours down the rabbit hole in one go. You can also bust them for being extremely good at writing enticing headlines.

    HearWriteNow & Blood-Red Pencil

  2. I love it, Kathryn, a sentence of more than ten words, one with style, substance, and vocabulary. I hesitate to say it--and my editing colleagues here might well protest--but this is precisely the sort of sentence that all too many editors will red-pencil and annotate with marginalia implying that it is too long, should be broken up, and use simpler language.

    I am delighted to be in the same camp as, a cadre that refuses to dumb-down our beautiful language or talk down to readers.

    --Larry Constantine (Lior Samson)

  3. Wonderful example of how long sentences can work in some types of writing. Larry, I would never suggest breaking a sentence like this up unless it was in a book aimed for genres that used to be referred to as pulp fiction. For writers aiming for a mainstream audience, this works just fine. In fact, more than fine, wonderful.

  4. The long sentence is great becaue it works. The writer knew what he/she was doing, gave it punch, and ended it with a series that said it all.

    Catering to the literary "needs" of those who haven't developed their ability to read beyond third-grade level does nothing to inspire them to expand their comprehension horizons and grow as readers. Mixing a few clear, long sentences amidst varied shorter ones can open up a whole new world to them.

    Great post, Kathryn, and spot-on comment, Larry!

  5. Hey, I don't care how long it is ... if it's funny I'll read it.

  6. "Ignoring the cautionary-tale shape" - I found it to be a bit of a strain on every level. Hard to look at, tough to comprehend, difficult to speak. Maybe it's just too first-thing-in-the-day for me and my neurons aren't engaged yet. On the topic of reading aloud, we're featuring Your Fantastic Elastic Brain at Little Pickle Press this month, and the author explains an interesting thing about brains in the first decade. Children don't show brain activity and growth when hearing digital sounds, even if it's the mother's voice recorded, but do react to a live voice. So read those books to each other - it's great for the brains!

  7. Elle: thanks for the warning. Maybe I'll stick with their books!

    And Maryann, thanks for pointing out that we aren't one-size-fits-all editors.

  8. Larry: I have to admit, I'm a reformed long-sentence junky. I come by it honestly: I once read a letter to the editor written by my dad, whose sentences were so complex and convoluted I had no clue what it was about. (Of course since it was already in the paper when I read it, I said, "Nice, Dad.") But I do still love to indulge now and then, especially when mixing them up with shorter sentences, as Linda said. Claire Messud is an author who consistently writes in luscious, winding sentences that never lose their way.

  9. Chris: Good point! If it works, it works.

    Dani: the phrase that didn't work for you was my favorite part. I love that about writing, the way it both expresses and reflects our individuality. Makes you have hope for the book market, doesn't it? There is room for us all. :)

  10. I agree there is more to life than exercise. Don't overdo it!

    Sounds like a fun book. I'm glad he enjoyed it.

    Morgan Mandel

  11. I really loved reading your blog. It was very well authored and easy to understand. I also found your posts very interesting.


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