One afternoon in my corporate days, I burst into my manager's office with what I thought was a brilliant idea.
(Well, it wasn't exactly an office. She sat between four fake walls of foam, butted against a window. This seating placement signified her status. The rest of us crouched over secondhand monitors in neat rows in the middle of the room, helpless ducks on the water. No walls in sight).
I came in, waving a sheet of paper.
"You know how we've been looking for a ranking system for our speakers in training??!" I said.
"Um... ok. Sure," she answered, swinging her patient chair around to face me.
"Well, get a load of this!"
And I told her my idea: a dynamic ranking system, based on a 3D graph I'd made. Each speaker-in-training was to be ranked on three different factors:
Pace of speaking (how fast or slow were you talking)
Motion of the body (were you still or fluid?),
Volume of voice (loud/soft).
The reports could be similar to the DiSC assessment or a Myers-Briggs, and the students would get real, actionable feedback quickly. And we could trademark it! We’d be filthy rich!
(All the plans I made in my 20s ended in “We’d be filthy rich!”)
My manager listened. Nodded in all the right places. At the end of my rant, she said:
"Todd, this all sounds great. Let's put a pin in it until the next team meeting, and we'll circle back then,"
I think she knew that if you make an excitable 25-year-old sleep on an idea, they forget about it.
Which I did.
At the time, I thought my idea was super original: measure quality based on variety. Many years later, I discovered that idea was NOT original, but still useful.
It’s a writing technique called "Hypotaxis and Parataxis"
The short version is this: If your work is boring, a simple fix is to make some sentences much longer, while making others shorter.
This seems oversimplified.
Let's look at an example, from Neil Gaiman's introduction to his short story collection: Fragile Things.
"My original plan for this book of tales and imaginings, some eight years ago, was to create a short story collection that I would call "These People Ought to Know Who We Are and Tell That We Were Here," after a word balloon in a panel from a Little Nemo Sunday Page (you can now find a beautiful color reproduction of the page in Art Spiegelman's book “In the Shadow of Now Towers”), and every story would be told by one of a variety of dodgy and unreliable narrators as each explained their life, told us who they were and that, once, they too were here. A dozen people, a dozen stories."
The first sentence is a whopping 115 words, spinning and tumbling along.
The second only has six.
The contrast doesn't have to be this dramatic. Check this example from clothing store Aritzia (which writes great copy).
“Soft knits, relaxed silhouettes, and a distinct lack of sleeves. Timeless.”
10 words. Then one word.
One more example, from Nancy Myers' 1991 Father of the Bride ( a script with a great opening scene):
“I’m told that one day I’ll look back at all this with great affection and nostalgia. I hope so.”
16 words. Then three.
Over and over this pattern repeats.
Each of these passages has more going on technically, but I'm going to leave it there for now. Why overcomplicate things?
Practice this, and I'll see you soon.
Much love as always <3
-Todd B from Tennessee
I corrected that typo. Used in human speech.
I love this counterintuitive approach. We often think about contrasting ideas or words used, but we don't often consider another variable for effective writing: sentence structure. Perhaps we've been discouraged from writing lengthy sentences in school, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Thanks for the post!