Revising good sentences

Let’s revise a sentence in multiple ways to see what effects we can achieve. Here’s the sentence: “Attribution is the writer’s primary device for indicating the validity of information.”

I think like that, but I don’t have to write that way. We phrase our sentences to fit our audiences, the rest of the piece, and what we want to say.

If you read that sentence aloud, it flows, and the meaning is perfectly clear. A fine sentence, if readers know the technical term “attribution,” and if they would know for sure whether “validity” refers to truth or accuracy. This sentence makes several assumptions that would be clear to journalists or academics, depending on the context, but maybe not to others.

Let’s shift the focus from the writer to the reader: “Attribution is the reader’s primary device for judging the validity of information.” This version features the receiver, but we still have problems with technical terms.

Let’s try again, defining “attribution” and “validity”: “Knowing where information came from is the readers’ primary means for judging if it’s true.” We can make the sentence more immediate by changing the past-tense verb “came” to the present tense “comes”: “Knowing where information comes from is the readers’ primary means for judging if it’s true.” That last phrase, “if it’s true” chooses truth over accuracy, and we could blur the distinction by saying “if it’s valid.” (As an explainer, I prefer to keep things unblurred, but sometimes….)


Remember our basic diagram of emphasis by position? In the latest sentence, the readers sit in the unemphatic middle. Let’s emphasize the readers and attribution: “Readers judge the validity of information based on where it came from.”

Since this exercise is about the readers’ knowledge, let’s get that into the sentence: “Readers judge the validity of information by knowing where it comes from.” Less abstract without the phrase “based on.”

Our sentence is still a little academic and formal, so let’s aim it directly at the reader rather than the writer: “How do you know something is true? First, by asking where the information came from.”

All of these sentences are good sentences, and they all say essentially the same thing. But they say it in different ways, with differing effects. Which one would you choose? It depends on what you’re trying to say, and how you want your readers to understand it.

[Got an interesting sentence you played with?]

Published in: on October 27, 2009 at 10:15 am  Leave a Comment  

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