Course 1: Lesson 4
For several years, I have conducted writing workshops for adults in my hometown. In preparation for each such workshop, I ask the participants to bring with them a writing sample on the topic, "Why your home town is the perfect place to live." If I do not supply a specific topic, I routinely receive four or five pages on topics like My Vacation. Supplying the topic does not completely eliminate personal references in the minds of poor writers, but it helps.
Likewise, employers routinely ask employees to write specific memos. College professors assign specific topics for research. We have already learned that sticking to the subject rather than writing about ourselves on every topic is essential to good written communication. However, invariably, in my workshops, in the corporate world, and in academic institutions, writers face a few challenges far greater than the overuse of the personal reference.
I learned a great deal from conducting my writing workshops. People love to talk – or write – too much. They ramble, and ramble, and ramble. Most of us already know brevity is better than rambling. However, what is far worse is fragmentation.
In a manner of speaking, fragmentation is the opposite of brevity. Striving to write brief sentences implies writing sentences. Sentences convey whole thoughts. Sentences have subjects and verbs. They communicate complete ideas.
For example, look at this simple sentence:
I have a cat.
Is there any confusion? The reader of this sentence knows I have something and also knows that something is a cat. Suppose I were to write the following instead:
What does this mean? Taken alone, it means nothing. It is merely a fragment or piece of a sentence. It is an incomplete thought. People often write in fragments. They think readers understand the meanings they are attempting to convey because they know the meanings they are attempting to convey. However, the reader is frequently clueless because the writer is clueless.
For example, suppose a person writes:
I have a pet. A cat.
The writer has fragmented a sentence. However, despite the poor writing, the reader can figure out the pet the student is referring to is the cat in the fragmented sentence that follows. Suppose, however, the sentence reads:
I will attend the funeral for the politician that passed away. In the morning.
What does this mean? Is the funeral in the morning or did the politician die in the morning? Take another example:
I intend to go to the mall to buy the dress I will wear to the prom. Next Saturday.
Really? Are you going to the mall next Saturday? Perhaps, the prom is next Saturday. Clear? Absolutely not. Fragment a hundred times in a five-page document and by the time your reader figures out your meaning (if it is possible), the entire thrust of your ideas has been lost. It would be like going to a movie theater with your friends and discussing how many awards an actor has won, only to discover that while you were sidetracked, you missed the best part of the movie. Likewise, your reader doesn’t know how much substance was included in your poorly written document.
Avid readers often point out that successful authors use fragments for emphasis. For instance, the last line of a chapter in a fiction work might read:
It is probably a great book. However, best-selling romance novels are not academic papers or formal business writings. Commercial authors’ purposes are different and the rules for writing them are often different, just as I am using many fragments and personal references in this lesson for a specific reason. However, if you would like to clean up your writing so your meanings are always clear, and if you are sick of people asking you what you mean when you write, do not fragment.
For practice, re-write the following sentences. They are all poorly written due to fragmentation:
1. In Italy, just after World War II.
2. Working far into the night in an effort to save his pony.
3. Some of the students working in Professor Smith’s class.
4. Even though he had better arguments and was by far the more powerful speaker.
5. When I first stepped into the sunlight, which had not been seen for nearly three days, and she walked along the beach kicking sand.
Writers wishing to drastically improve should practice writing complete sentences, without repeating any meanings, using the fewest words possible. The third trick for the serious writer is a concept that will clean up a world of grammatical difficulties, without the need to memorize complicated rules.