This column recently quoted Ernest Hemingway, who credited the rules he learned as a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star as "the best rules I ever learned in the business of writing."
Whenever I conduct a writing workshop, I list 12 rules, dealing with simplicity, vigor and economy — qualities that underpin effective communication.
Consider this violation of a rule about keeping sentences short, in an Associated Press story about a white sheriff's deputy in San Francisco who shot and killed a Black man:
"Graphic body camera footage showing Deputy Andrew Hall shooting Tyrell Wilson, 33, within seconds of asking him to drop a knife was released Wednesday, the same day prosecutors charged Hall with manslaughter and assault in the fatal shooting of an unarmed Filipino man more than two years ago."
I had to read that sentence twice, to untangle those two incidents.
Too many ingredients in one serving. The author used 48 words in one sentence.
But, you may object, surely you can't be expected to write sentences that run only a dozen or fewer words.
You are right; this is where Rule 13 applies: Feel free to break any rule … as long as it works.
Here's a prime example of a long sentence that does work, by W.C. Heinz, the late sportswriter and war correspondent.
The best nonfiction writers in the business revered Heinz.
He described in 56 words the moments after veterinarians put down a racehorse descended from an elite bloodline; the horse had just suffered a broken leg in his first race ever:
"Then the heavens opened, the rain pouring down, the lightning flashing, and they rushed for the cover of the stables, leaving alone on his side near the pile of bricks, the rain running off his hide, dead an hour and a quarter after his first start, Air Lift, son of Bold Venture, full brother of Assault."
Now think back to that shooting in San Francisco.
How would you rewrite that account to make it clear? I look forward to receiving your version.
Gary Gilson is a Twin Cities writing coach and Emmy Award winner. He also teaches journalism at Colorado College. Gilson can be reached through his website writebetterwithgary.com.