Thursday, October 1, 2009

Use Characters as Subjects!

Readers like to know, as soon as possible, whom or what a sentence is about. Hence, readers like to find the subject (and verb) quickly. If you write a sentence whose subject is an abstraction, your reader will struggle to understand your meaning. For instance, examine this sentence:

Avi’s hope was for the peaceful preservation of the client relationship, but the client’s attack on Avi’s colleague made a confrontation an inevitability.

In the italicized sentence above, the word “hope” serves as the subject of the first clause. It is followed by its verb “was”, as well as two words that seem like verbs, “preservation” and “relationship”. You would not consider the word “hope” a “character”. It is more of an abstract concept. When you use these kinds of words, you cause readers to do a double take while their minds translate the sentence, perhaps as follows, “Avi hoped to preserve the client relationship….” This, of course, wastes the reader’s time.

The latter half of the sentence suffers from the same poor craft. The word “attack” serves as the sentence’s subject whereas it should rightly serve as its verb. If it does serve as the verb, then the word “client” (a character) better serves as the subject of the latter clause.

The sentence, then, is better written as: Avi hoped to preserve the client relationship, but the client attacked Avi’s colleague and this caused them to confront each other. (You may have an even better translation.)

The sentences below lack clarity, as well, because they lack a character as a subject:

There were predictions by his staff that the team leader would receive quick executive approval.

Attempts were made on the part of the CEO’s aides to assert his innocence regarding the scandal that had overtaken the company.

The client’s analysis of our data omits any citation of sources that would provide support for his criticism of our argument.

You will now see quickly, perhaps, that each of these sentences can be improved by creating characters as subjects (and using action verbs as verbs and not nouns):

His staff (character) predicted (action verb) that the executives would approve the team leader.

The CEO’s aides (characters) attempted (action verb) to assert his innocence in the scandal.

The client (character) analyzed (action verb) our data but did not cite sources to explain why he criticized our argument.

You will write stronger sentences when you use characters as subjects and action verbs as verbs. You are well advised, then, to review the first few words of all the sentences you write to look for characters as subjects and action verbs. Your readers will thank you!

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