Writing Tools: Participle at beginning of sentence confuses readers

Writing Tools: Participle at beginning of sentence confuses readers

A writer should offer a short sharp sentence conveying a maximum of impact through a minimum of phrases.

Arup Chakraborty Updated: Saturday, May 06, 2023, 08:59 PM IST
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Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh): Writing a crisp intro to a news story is as joyous as getting the highest marks in an examination that reporters and copywriters take daily in a newsroom.

In India and in Britain, the word “intro” is used to signify the beginning of a news story. In the USA, it is called “lead.”

A writer should offer a short sharp sentence conveying a maximum of impact through a minimum of phrases. It is, however, easier said than done.

Once Eugene Doane wrote a classic intro in the New York Sun, which former editor of the London Times Harold Evans quoted in his book, Essential English for Journalists, Editors and Writers.

Chicago, Oct 31: James Wilson lighted a cigarette while bathing his feet in benzene. He may live.

It is a rare piece, since it narrates the whole story in two sentences. Nevertheless, it is impossible to write such epigrammatic intros to all the news stories daily.

What is necessary for a reporter or a copywriter in a hard news story is to pay attention to the effects on what happened, rather than on how, when or where.

Some newspapers tolerate long intros. A national daily in India sometimes writes a 50-word intro, thinking that the reader does not have enough time to go through the entire story, but such intros consist of grammatically confusing sentences.

A reporter or a copywriter tries to write several facts in the intro. Consequently, they confuse the reader.

Writing a 30-word intro is not difficult to achieve, but, at the same time, one should keep away from writing an intro: A man fell off a train yesterday. That is neither an intro nor a news story. It is empty.

Evans writes: The editor has to make sure the intro is precise enough to refer to a unique happening, but the precision must not be prolix.

Old is not always gold. The thought that five Ws and one H –

Who? Why? What? Where? When? How? – should be included in the intro has caused a great harm to reporters as well as to copywriters. The rule is applicable to the entire news story. Still, many writers fail to appreciate that.

Even some coaching institutes in India tell their students to follow the five-W and one-H rule to write an answer to an entire question, so that it is clear and logical.

An intro should consist of one news idea. According to Evans, it must contain some identification, but origins, sequence and chronology are all subsidiary to what resulted in the end.

Apart from that, longer intros look typographically odd. They are unenticing. 

Obsession for secondary details

Many young writers are obsessed with the secondary details and want to mingle them with the main news idea. So, they begin an intro either with a participle or a preposition. Hence, they are caught in a muddle, since the participle is the weakest form of the verb, so it introduces a long subsidiary clause:

Agreeing to look into the murder of gangster-turned politician Atiq Ahmed and his brother Ashraf, the Supreme Court on Friday sought details of the police encounter of Atiq’s son Asad two days earlier.

The intro is not very long. Still, the writer tried to highlight several facts, and, in the process, did not leave any room for the reader to breathe in.

Both “seek” and “agree” are strong. The reader does not appreciate the subsidiary clause at the beginning of a sentence. The first part of the sentence barely signifies anything until the reader has gone through the second part of the sentence. The reporter concerned, caught between “agree” and “seek,” forgot that had the Supreme not “agreed,” how it would have sought the details.

Fowler says, “These infelicitous constructions seldom cause real ambiguity, but they jar and can distract the reader and are to be avoided.”

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