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    "Pitching" Sentences

    Wednesday, October 28, 2009

    Writer James K. Kilpatrick says that writers need to "stay in pitch" when developing a piece of writing. Here's what he means: Suppose you are upset about an insurance invoice you've received, and, in a letter to the insurance company, you clearly state your displeasure in the first few sentences. To stay in pitch, the rest of your sentences should maintain that same level of intensity.

    Writing Fast
    Interestingly, the intensity of your writing is directly related to the length and pace of your sentences. To be assertive, you should write short, direct sentences that move your reader along at a steady clip: no hemming or hawing; no interesting little asides; no long, airy thoughts. Just hit hard, one point after another. Note the pace of the sentences in this passage expressing a basic complaint:

    This letter addresses a problem with purchase order #07-1201. Copies of the original PO plus two invoices are enclosed. Here is the sequence of events concerning this PO.

    • I faxed the original purchase order on December 16, 2008.
    • I then spoke with Kim in customer service on January 7.
    • Then I re-sent the PO, which had been lost.
    • I received a partial shipment on January 17. You back ordered the remaining items.
    • On January 25, I then received a complete shipment (invoice 0151511). I contacted Kim, and she cancelled the back-ordered items.

    I am returning the partial order by UPS. Please credit our account for the following:…

    Discussion: All of the sentences are short and to the point. No sentence, in fact, is more than nine words in length. The direct, fast-paced sentences reflect the nature of the communication: a no-nonsense response to an order mix-up - with a clear undertone of frustration.

    Slowing Down
    When you want to be more reflective and thoughtful, you can slow things down by using sentences that are longer and more loosely connected. Looser sentences lead quite naturally to proposing or considering rather than asserting, exploring rather than obtaining. Note the pace of the sentences in this passage:

    As you know, we will be moving to our new location on August 18, and we have scheduled an open house for September 1. To help visitors at that event learn what Felton Engineering does, I plan to set up displays showing samples of your unique heater designs and interesting product applications.

    As you pack for the move, please help me by identifying products that would interest visitors, and look for blueprints, sketches, and small models that illustrate these products. Please remember that visitors may understand commercial applications more easily than technical military or aerospace designs.…

    Discussion: All of the sentences are long, stringing together a number of ideas. The longest sentence is 28 words in length; the shortest one is 16 words. These longer, slower-paced sentences reflect the nature of the communication: a request asking coworkers to consider and to explore possibilities.

    Now You Try
    Here are two writing scenarios for you to consider, one requiring fast-paced sentences and one requiring slower sentences. (You decide which type of sentences to use for each scenario.) Afterward, discuss your writing with a coworker.

    • Write a memo to a supervisor, manager, or coworker, expressing your concern about a new policy or a particular action.
    • Write a letter to an in-house planning committee, sharing your thoughts about new products or directions to consider in the future.

    A Final Thought: First and foremost, your sentences must be clear and smooth reading, but they should also be constructed to reflect the nature or purpose of your writing, meaning that their pace should match your intended pitch. (As you can see, I'm reflecting here, thus the longer, looser sentence.)