Thursday, January 26, 2012

Emphasizing Emphasis

When it comes to editorial suggestions / corrections, the issue of sentence combination is often the most frustrating. Why do you want me to split this one? Why should I merge these two? And when we look at the fact that compound sentences and two-sentence splits are equally correct as far as grammar is concerned, it can become near-infuriating.

So what the heck is the difference? Emphasis. Sure, you can opt to do what I did and fake it with italics, boldface, and underline, but understanding how emphasis works within a sentence will give them the most punch. We're talking Evander Holyfield, here. (Not Tyson ... I couldn't think of a literary ear-biting joke)

The great thing about figuring out emphasis is that it will not only allow you to decide how to deal with compound sentences (or the splitting thereof), but it will also allow you to manipulate how the reader feels about your sentences. Neat, huh? Here are some rules of thumb that will ensure your sentences are nice and sharp:

Longer is not better. (Which could also be worded like this: "Deciding to add lots of additional words and phrases simply to enhance the length and academic clout of any given segment of writing really doesn't end up providing the kind of benefits that you might initially hope for nine times out of ten." Eww ... isn't that obnoxious? No bueno.)  

Let's be honest; sometimes we write to fill pages. When you're barely scratching the bottom of page four and that blasted tyrant of a teacher is demanding six, what else is there to do? Resist the temptation to add words for the sake of words. Stronger emphasis and sharper sentences will net you a stronger paper. Most professors are more than willing to help with idea generation if you need more to tackle.

Important points deserve emphasis. Sometimes "and" ends up as a placeholder, a word we use while we're thinking and writing simultaneously. "Ooh," your clever collegiate brain tells you, "don't forget about this! And doesn't it remind you of that?" Not wanting to miss out on the opportunity, we throw these thoughts together.

The problem arises when these ideas don't play nice with one another. If you put two equally important ideas into a compound sentence, one might overpower the other. In a worst case scenario, an exceptionally long sentence feels muddled, killing the emphasis on both would-be stellar ideas.

Check it:

Sarah cried about the accident all night before getting up the next day and drowning her tears with the bottle of Scotch she was going to share with Jim.

There's quite a bit going on here that crowds itself out, squishing and bumping shoulders like a literary mosh pit ... minus the nightmare-inducing B.O. Sure, the reader gets the basic gist of what's happening, but it moves by so quickly that much of the emphasis is lost.  

This is one of those moments where you, as a writer, have to determine exactly what it is that you want to get across to your reader. If, in fact, you want us to feel the time flying by for Sarah now that Jim has suffered whatever horrible fate befell him (I imagine it involved faulty protective measures around the local zoo's lion exhibit), then the above sentence might work. However, in most instances, you don't want this kind of blurry, rushed feeling. An alternate way to re-write the mini-scene from above might be as follows:

Sarah cried about the accident all night. The next morning, she drowned her tears with a fifth of Scotch. She had planned on sharing it with Jim.

I can hear the echoing cries and see the shaking fists: "But Stephen, I'm not a creative writer! I'm working on a research paper / proposal / persuasive essay / job application / et cetera. How do Jim and his foolish shenanigans help me?"

Have no fear, oh-so-cynical reader friend. The basic premise applies to nearly any kind of writing:

- Mike Tyson was a great boxer until he bit someone's ear off and then became a joke and had to retire.
- I would be a wonderful choice for your program since I have many qualifications and have taken many relevant classes.

Regardless of what kind of writing you're doing, it's easy to let information get crammed together if you're not paying close attention. Also, you don't want to assume that all your long sentences are bad. Sometimes a longer sentence can add a nice change in pacing, giving the overall piece a rhythmic feel (And as silly as that sounds, it greatly influences readability). Make sure to keep that main point in your mind -- how many important pieces of information am I trying to convey? If you have a handle on that, it's hard to go wrong.

3. End, Beginning, Middle. Every sentence has three points of emphasis. The strongest of these three is the ending. If you want a particular part of your sentence to carry extra weight, stick it on the end. Do you want that "however" to carry a little extra weight without overwhelming your main point? Break the sentence, start a new one with "however," and back-load the most hard-hitting point.

(i.e. Everyone says Bob is a great man. However, I have seen him kick kittens.)

That period (also known as full syntactic closure) forces the reader to stop, and this stop provides emphasis. This can be another great trick to use when you're splitting things up. Have two points that you want to really jump out? Make two sentences. Stick 'em at the end.

Keep emphasis in mind. I won't promise an end to all your multi-sentence woes, but knowing where you want the big "hits" to fall will definitely make things easier in the long run.

1 comment:

  1. Jim and Sarah? Really? there a real Bob who kicks cats, or is it just Bob, the cat. :)