Exploring my writing: The subjects of sentences
On the road to improve my writing, I stumbled upon this super interesting video by Larry McEnerney. The techniques covered in the video bend my mind. One such technique is about the subjects of sentences. Consider the two sentences below, which one do you think is better?
- The dog chased the cat.
- The cat was chased by the dog.
The first sentence is shorter and has an active verb. So, according to conventional wisdom, the first sentence is better. However, that might not be optimal. When we write, as Larry explains, we should aim for concision. But not in the conventional sense, that is, the number of words. Instead, we should target the time it takes for the reader to understand the sentence.
We can improve concision by multiple routes. One route, it turns out, is to focus on the sentence's subject. It is because the subject defines what the sentence is about. So the first sentence, "The dog chased the cat," is about the dog; while the second sentence, "The cat was chased by the dog," is about the cat. The two sentences are about different things. Now, what if we serve the reader the sentence about the dog, but they care about the cat? That's inconsistent. So the reader needs to cognitively reprocess the sentence to make it about the cat. This reprocessing is taxing, and it harms concision. The reader becomes disinterested or bored, and you can lose him.
We should serve the reader subjects that are aligned with what they care about. If the reader cares about the dog, the subject should be the dog. If they care about the cat, the subject should be the cat.
So I started experimenting with the technique. When drafting a product update to the rest of the company, I wrote: "We delivered the feature [X]". However, the readers care about the product and the customers. So I can write the sentence as "Customers can now do [X]," and bring the product update closer to the readers' interest.
There's this story from Larry that I remind myself in hope to lubricate my rusty subjects:
Sometimes people pay me stupid amounts of money to fly to often wonderful cities to sit down with them. They are saying to me: "My readers don't find this valuable" or "I can't get this published" or "I can't get promoted." So I make them take their pen out and underline the subjects of their sentences. And I ask: "Do your readers care about this?" And they say: "No."
— Larry McEnerney, from the lecture Writing Beyond the Academy,