A Los Alamitos woman’s writings have appeared in the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books. To read the profile of Los Alamitos author Sallie Rodman, visit www.sunnews.org and click on “The ‘write stuff’ for Sallie Rodman is expressing her personal journey.”

The longest and shortest sentences I ever read appeared in the sane book: “Watership Down.” The longest sentence went on for the better part of two or three pages, leaving me limp and exhausted by the time I had slogged my way to the period.

Yet it was a perfectly crafted sentence. It was punctuated correctly and it was grammatically correct. I even remember fragments of it decades later. Still, I prefer the shortest sentence in the book. It was the first sentence: “The primroses were over.”

Which brings me to the theme of this Sunday’s writing blog: the shorter your sentences, the better.

One of the goals of this blog is to help people write better columns, press releases and letters to the editor. Another goal is to simplify the work the editor and I do in assembling the Sun Newspaper and sunnews.org.

Encouraging people to write short sentences serves both those goals. It is easier for readers to read and remember information in short sentences. It is easier to write short sentences. You are less likely to run into complicated punctuation questions if you write short sentences.

How short? Ah, that’s a good question. Sadly, there’s no good answer. My personal rule of writing says that any sentence longer than 50 words should be reconsidered. Journalism writing style sometimes requires me to pack more information into a single sentence than I would like. Sometimes I bend the rules of journalism writing style in pursuit of clarity.

I also try to keep the first sentence in every article to 25 words or less. That doesn’t always work, but that’s the goal I set. I respectfully suggest you try something similar.

One of the nice things about the computer age is that you don’t need to waste paper re-writing whole sentences or paragraphs.

Another good rule is one I mentioned in my blog on bad press releases: Read your copy out loud. If a sentence sounds awkward to your ears, cut it down. If you have to pause for breath while reading the sentence, convert the information to two sentences.

Warning: snobs hate short sentences. Snobs maintain that only children write short sentences. Snobs like to criticize writers both professional and amateur for writing short sentences. Ignore them. Most snobs have never been published. Few published snobs have ever earned a living from writing.

The real test of good writing is this: did anyone read your article, poem or short story all the way to the end? Seriously. Back in journalism school, I was taught that 75 percent of my readers would only read the headline and then move on. Of the remaining 25 percent, only 75 percent would read beyond the first paragraph.

So keep your sentences short.

Always a pleasure,
Charles

The sentence was so bad, I remember every syllable about a quarter century later. I don’t remember the name of the young woman who wrote the sentence, but I remember the sentence.

“The church has helped her facilitate with the homeless for years.”

Facilitate means “to make easier.” So the church helped this woman help with the homeless. Help do what? Help the homeless? Help the homeless helpthemselves? How?

I was a student editor at one of my university’s newspapers. The author was a pretty little public relations student. She had submitted a brief, superficial profile of a public relations woman to our newspaper. Never mind the fact that the subject of the profile was of no earthly interest to the readers of our newspaper. I read the submission. We were always looking for volunteers and if the girl wrote well, we could assign her to something our audience would care about.

About two thirds of the way through the profile, the journalism student–yes, public relations is a kind of journalism– informed her readers that the public relations woman in the profile had fed the homeless at her church once a month for the past decade. So far, so good. Then came the clunker:

“The church has helped her facilitate with the homeless for years.”

I asked her what the sentence meant.

“She feeds the homeless at her church.”

Looking back, I wish I’d said something tactful. I was honest instead: “You already said that in the previous sentence. All this sentence does is show you know how to spell ‘facilitate.'”

If you think that was harsh, I’ve got news for you: I’ve been on the receiving end of harsher words and I’ll receive harsh criticisms from time to time until fate or death forces me out of the writing business. Part of being a writer is taking sometimes scathing criticism. The trick is to distinguish between legitimate complaints and illegitmate complaints. The legitmate complaints offer you an opportunity to learn and to grow. The illegitimate compaints need to be ignored.

I give the young woman credit: she took the criticism without flinching, without whining. She behaved like a professional when I behaved like a tyrant. I don’t know if she graduated journalism school or not. I don’t know if she found a career in public relations or not. I know she succeeded at something.

I offered other criticisms of her work. I don’t remember if we published her story or not. I know I never saw her again. Still, her sentence has stayed in my head. Why? It was a classic example of something I see all the time: inexperienced writers trying to impress people with their vocabularies. Not knowing what she wanted to say, the student writer repeated what she had said and added a word that sounded impressive to her. That was a mistake.

Most of the time, the best rule is to keep your words and your sentences simple. A few years ago I edited some copy by a writer for another publication owned by our company. The “author” loved to impress readers with how many fancy words he knew. It sometimes took several minutes for me to understand what he was talking about. I invariably re-wrote his copy and he invariably took offense at what he considered bad editing.

Since then, he has found his writing niche. He writes better opinion pieces than news stories. More importantly, he writes the way he speaks. He tries to impress people with his arguments, not his vocabulary.

Remember the Professor on “Gilligan’s Island?” I recall one episode in which Gilligan said that the Professor was so smart, he didn’t understand what the Professor was saying.

A teacher who can’t communicate with his students is called an incompetent. What good are smart ideas if no one understands them? What good is telling the truth if you speak a different language than your audience does?

Words are useful tools, but you are supposed to use them to build sentences and paragraphs that convey information. You aren’t supposed to use words to show off the fact that you know more words than most people have. Frankly, it is rude as well as ineffective. Odds are, an editor will cut your article–and you–down to size.

You can build a house with saws, wood, hammers and nails. You can’t build a house by randomly pounding nails in random boards and hoping that somehow a building will rise from your efforts. That isn’t construction, that’s disturbing the peace.

The same goes with writing. Keep it simple. You aren’t trying to impress your middle school English teacher here. You want people to attend a fundraiser or you want people to rethink their position on an issue. Get to the point. Choose the simplest words and use the simplest sentences. Most of the time, that approach works best.

So if you submit something to the Sun Newspapers, just tell us what happened or will happen, the time it happened, the day of the week it happened, the date and the location. And include a phone number or e-mail address so we can ask for more information if we need it.

By all means, use a dictionary or a thesaurus while you write. But if you have to stop in the middle of every sentence to look up the word you want to use, there’s a good chance you’re trying to hard. Stop. Take a deep breath. Start over.

Next week, we’ll talk about my adventures with bad press releases.

I decided to become a writer when I was about 7 or 8 years old. I’m 50 now and I actually pay (most of) my bills with the money I make from this work.

So why do commas make me crazy? You’d think I would have Why do commas seem to make almost everyone crazy? I know people who think the comma should be used before every space. The comma, next to the period, is the most commonly used and most frequently misused of all punctuation marks.

It doesn’t help that there are one or two rules of Associated Press Style that part company with standard rules of punctuation as set forth in “The Elements of Style.” These two books represent the standards of my occupation and when they contradict one another, I find myself wishing my math skills had been good enough to let me follow my father into the income tax preparation game.

As for commas, I spend a lot of my time deleting unnecessary commas and relocating misplaced commas. It probably adds up to two hours a week of my life. That’s one of the reasons I write this blog on writing–to help our contributors help me so I have more time for telling the stories of our community.

A former employer of mine once said: “Commas always come in pairs.”

I had to politely (and quite cautiously) explain that that rule only applied to non-essential clauses. In plain, non-English teacher English, that means a section of the sentence that you could delete without harming the sentence.

There’s a simple test to determine if the rule applies to a particular sentence: pretend the words between the commas don’t exist. If the sentence still makes sense, then the commas are properly placed. If not, at least one of those commas has either been misplaced—or isn’t necessary.

Example: I read my favorite, non-fiction book, “The Elements of Style,” at least once a year. Test: I read my favorite at least once a year.

Didn’t work, did it? That first comma seems suspicious, so my next try will be to eliminate that one. (You’ll notice that last sentence only had one comma. A comma at the end of an introductory clause stands alone. The longer your sentence is, the more likely you’ll find different rules applying to different parts of the same sentence. When in doubt, write short sentences.)

Revision I read my favorite non-fiction book, “The Maltese Falcon,” once a year. Test: I read my favorite once a year.

OK, that works. However, this test has limits. It won’t help you with compiling a list of things and it won’t help you with commas that stand alone. That said, it is useful in helping you figure out where which tools you need to build your sentences.

The next rule to remember is to always use a comma before the word “but” in a sentence.

My favorite non-fiction book is “The Elements of Style,” but my favorite fiction books are “The Maltese Falcon” and “Watership Down.”

Using commas in lists gets a bit more complicated, because sometimes you have lists within lists. In that situation, you may need to use semi-colons as well as commas. When in doubt, read “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.

One last useful tip before I go: when in doubt, read the sentence out loud. If it sounds awkward to your ears, rewrite it. If you have to pause for breath before finishing the sentence, make it two smaller sentences. If you have trouble reading it out loud, make it two smaller sentences.

I’ll see you next week.

A few years ago, when I was a lowly editorial associate, an inexperienced volunteer writer submitted a story to the Sun about the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos. Her article quoted a man I’d never heard of before: B. G. Combs. He was the commander of the JFTB. He has since retired.

At the time, I didn’t know if B.G. stood for his Bernard Gordon, “Big Guy,” or brigadier general. I was pretty sure that if he was a general he would not appreciate some reporter or editor identifying him as “big guy.”

It was 20 minutes of deadline, if memory serves me right. I didn’t see the article until late in the process—when I was supposed to place the story in a computer program that would be used to create the newspaper that lands on your doorstep every Thursday. Twenty minutes of deadline is not the best time to ask yourself questions about copy.

I asked the volunteer reporter, who didn’t recall the answer off the top of her head. Steam must have been oozing out of my ears, because she told me to relax.

About 10 minutes passed while I waited for the answer. It turned out B.G. stood for brigadier general. The volunteer reporter had to make another phone call to find out that his full name was James P. Combs.

What’s the point? Publications (and) Web sites have style rules that go beyond following standard grammar, punctuation and spelling. Two rules that the rookie reporter broke were: use a source’s full name on first reference and abbreviate brigadier general as “brig. gen.”

When I tried to explain this to the reporter, she insisted I was wrong. Base personnel told her the correct way to refer to Combs in print was B.G. Combs. I’m sure that’s the correct U.S. Military style and I’m sure it serves the military’s mission well. However, her decision to follow U.S. Military style didn’t allow me to know the letters “B.G.” stood for. Over time, I urged her (and other volunteers who have followed in her footsteps) to use the full rank in front of the source’s name on first reference. This wasn’t consistent with news media style, but it spares volunteers the bother of memorizing our abbreviation system and spares me the bother of guessing what the military’s abbreviation system means.

Had the rookie followed the first rule—use a source’s full name on first reference—I could have reasonably guessed what the initials stood for and saved us both a fair amount of time. (Yes, I know, journalists aren’t supposed to guess—we’re supposed to know or find out. Guess what? Twenty minutes of deadline, people take educated guesses—or they delete whole paragraphs from articles. Of course, I could have simply left the article out of the paper … it wasn’t time-sensitive, so we could have run it the following week.)

The purpose of the style rules news organizations go by is to get the information the reader needs to the reader in a uniform manner throughout the publication. Only an idiot cares if we report the time of day as noon, 12 PM or 12 p.m. Only sloppy editors intentionally use all three styles in the same publication.

Most news organizations, including the Sun Newspapers, follow The Associated Press Stylebook. My 30th (2004) edition of the Stylebook is 378 pages long. Smart journalists read it frequently. Most news organizations will test a job applicant to see if he or she knows it well. The applicant who fails the test remains unemployed. (And you thought your middle school English teacher was tough.)

Hence, journalists tend to be mighty stubborn about following AP Style. We take such things seriously because we have to take them seriously.

Do contributors to the Sun need to know AP Style? For the most part, I’d say no. However, the better you know and follow AP Style, the less work editors have to do on your submissions and the more favorably disposed the editors will be to your copy.

That can make the difference between a decision to fill empty space with copy from the “illiterate, makes me work twice as hard on deadline Tip Toe Club” or the “thoughtful, polite folks at the Tic Tac Toe Club.” That’s as true of the big dailies as it is of the small weeklies.

(Or you can buy an advertisement. Then it has to go in the newspaper. However, if you want it in the paper without paying for it, then please be nice to your editors.)

Here are a couple of style suggestions for writers submitting copy to the Sun:

Event, day of week, month, date, time of day (a.m. or p.m.), followed by the address. (You’d be shocked at how often people will write about how important or interesting an event will be, yet leave out the address. If people can find your event, they won’t show up.)

Try to keep your first sentence to less than 50 words. Most readers will start to skip over sentences that are longer than that. If you can’t follow the previous rule without breaking the second, I suggest you put the address of the event in the next sentence. The purpose of the style rules is to get the information the reader needs to the reader in a clear and uniform manner throughout the publication. Everything else is subordinate to that purpose.

Identify everyone in a story by full name on first reference, unless they have legally changed their name to just a first name or that person is so famous that they can be identified by the first name alone. Capitalize titles before a name, but not after a name.

Believe it or not, this will shave a couple of hours off my work week and Sun Editor Dennis Kaiser’s work week. And please don’t take offense when we alter your copy. We usually have a reason and that reason usually has to do with reaching our audience. Because if we don’t reach our audience, you won’t reach your audience. Whether you call your audience “the reader,” “the community” or “potential customers,” the audience counts more than the writer (or the editor). That’s why we have stylebooks in this business.

OK, that’s enough for this day’s writing blog. I’ll see you next week. I’ll try to make the next writing blog shorter, too.

Always a pleasure,
Charles

Inexperienced and poorly trained writers have developed an aversion to the word “said”—as in: “Good morning,” he said.

According to this school of of thought, you can state, claim, note, add, yell, shout, exclaim, bleat, bellow, belch and even yodel—but you must never say anything.

Nonsense, I say. You are allowed to use the word said twice in a lifetime of writing. In fact, you can write that someone said something many times in an article.

The origins of the illiterate myth that you must avoid the word said at all costs—this red flag that tells the reader that a writer is both illiterate and pretentious—appears to have its origins in one of the basic rules of good writing: Don’t be redundant.

It is a good to avoid being redundant. However, that fine rule can be taken to an insane extreme. If you can’t use any word or phrase more than once, you can’t write more than two or three sentences before you run into trouble. Imagine the work it would take if you couldn’t use the words “he,” “she” or “the” more than once. You couldn’t use a source’s first or last name more than once or use a source’s gender or job title more than once.

Unfortunately, bad writers will go to insane lengths to avoid “said.” Here are some tips from a guy who has worked as a professional writer for more than six years.

Wrong: “I respectfully disagree,” he noted.

Don’t write that someone “noted” words unless they sang those words or wrote a note. If I write a profile of a man who answers questions by singing, I’m going to write that he sang the words—and make it clear I’m being literal when I write that fact. If someone responds to a verbal conversation by writing a note, I’m going to share that detail with readers—because it is a mighty strange thing for a man or woman to do during a conversation.

Right: “I like this restaurant,” she said.

Wrong: “I like this restaurant, too,” he added.

Reporters are supposed to interview as many sources as they can before they write a story. However, when you quote source B as adding information to something source A said, you create the impression that you sat at a table with those two people and the three of you had a conversation. “Added” is a lie told by a writer who claims to be purveying the truth because the writer wants to avoid using the word said. That makes the writer both illiterate and dishonest.

I’ll respect the use of the word “added” after a quote the day I accept the word “subtracted” after a quote. Hey, let’s try it and see if it works.

“I like you,” he subtracted.

Nope, “subtracted” doesn’t make sense at the end of a quote—and neither does “added.”

Right: “I am running for mayor,” she said.

Wrong: “I am running for mayor,” she stated.

The word stated implies that there might be a fact that contradicts that statement. It is a subtle way of calling someone a liar. As a rule, this word is used by amateurs who have no intention of accusing someone of being dishonest. Use “said” instead—you’re far less likely to end up on the wrong end of a libel suit. “Stated” is also jargon—it reads and sounds like a word a lawyer would use. Writers are people, they should write and speak as people.

Worse than wrong: “I’m a good person,” she claimed.

I wouldn’t use this word unless someone made an outlandish statement without any evidence to back it up. Even then, I probably wouldn’t use it. The word “claimed” bluntly implies someone is a liar. Sometimes journalists use it when someone makes an outlandish claim, but I won’t. If I have evidence someone is lying, I’m going to talk to my editor and publisher about when and how to use that evidence. I’m not going to use code words and hope the general public speaks mainstream media code.

The word said simply relates a fact: a human being opened his or her mouth and spoke words.

Worse than illiterate: “I’m excited!” he exclaimed.

Yes, I’ve actually seen “writers” combine an exclamation point with the word “exclaimed.” First, that really is redundant. Second, it is an insult to the reader’s intelligence. (The sentence implies the reader is too stupid to recognize a punctuation mark.)

The correct version of the sentence ought to be: “I am excited,” he said.

Or: “I am excited,” he said with a yawn.

I’ll sometimes report that a source “wrote” something rather than “said” something  if I can identify the author of the document. Otherwise, I use the word said. PDF files and printed pages cannot speak, but they can say important things—just ask anyone who has read the Bible or the Torah. Yet documents cannot write. So when quoting a document with a known author, I tell readers that so-and-so wrote the quoted words.

Said. It is a perfectly good word. Please use it as often as you need it when writing. You won’t have to tie yourself in knots trying to find an alternative world. Your reader will know what you are writing about. Your poor abused editor will be grateful for saving him the bother of replacing every “added,” “noted” and “stated” with “said.”

Incidentally, the more work you make an editor do, the less likely you are to get your submission published.

Please say said.

And having said that—I’ll see you next week.

Starting next Friday, I’ll be taking a little vacation time. I need to recharge my batteries so I can get more work done.

I’ll be spending part of my time reading “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. For those of you unfamiliar with this classic textbook, it is a guide to grammar, punctuation and writing.

I’ve read and reread the book since I was 14. I’m 50 and still struggling with the basics after all these years. I’m a professional and have been one for awhile now. In fact, I reread the book once every couple of years. It isn’t enough to learn new skills in this business—journalists have to constantly re-master the basics.

The bad news: if you are struggling with sentences, you’ll struggle with them until you die. (Written English is a tough language to master because it is in some ways quite irrational. That makes it flexible—but also maddening to work with.)

The good news: “The Elements of Style” is easier to read and understand than any of the English textbooks I used when I was growing up. So if any of you are struggling, I heartily recommend the book.

Always a pleasure,
Charles