Is this the worst sentence in the world?

The Economist certainly thinks so. Plus, the importance of opening lines, why writers use pseudonyms, what it means to write what you know, and more.


Each week, Evan Peterson rounds up five stories from across the Web that scribes of all stripes should check out.

Invite your reader to want to know more. Stephen King wrote a great piece this week on the power and importance of first sentences. It’s a great addition to King’s library of knowledge about good writing, and it’s worth remembering for journalists, copywriters and bloggers.

Meanwhile, a given writer’s other sentences are equally as important. Apparently, no one told financial author Philip Mirowski. That, and more.

Grab Your Reader: Sitting atop The Atlantic‘s most popular stories list for at least a few hours this week was this contribution from Stephen King about the importance and difficulty of writing opening sentences. He shares two of his favorites, one of his least favorite, and why sometimes—but not always—it’s best to jump right in, pulling your reader into the middle of a situation. King is, of course, writing about novels, which take months and years and hundreds of pages of dedication to the same story.

For journalists, brand journalists, and bloggers, the lesson stands. You’ve got to get your reader paying attention to what you’re about to tell them. I like to think that usually starts with a short sentence, because in the case of writers working on articles or posts rather than books, there’s even less time and space available to pull in a reader. They came there to read something short, after all.

Regardless of your approach, I think this lesson from King stands for all writers as well: “A book won’t stand or fall on the very first line of prose—the story has got to be there, and that’s the real work.” The Atlantic followed King’s piece up with a bunch of famous writers talking about their favorite opening lines.

The world’s worst sentence?: The Economist may have found it, and it’s bad. There’s quite a bit of unwarranted tap-dancing in a line taken from Philip Mirowski’s new financial book “Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste.” The Economist calls the sentence “a mixed metaphor” that is “meaningless and pretentious at the same time.” Buckle up; here it is:

“Yet the nightmare cast its shroud in the guise of a contagion of a deer-in-the-headlights paralysis.”

The post also reminds us of George Orwell’s six rules of writing from his 1946 essay. Always worth re-reading to avoid phrases like that of Mirowski’s.

Why use a pseudonym?: The crime novelist Robert Galbraith was recently discovered to actually be Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling, which prompted this piece in The Economist about author pseudonyms. Novelists use them sometimes to cover a new topic and writing style without the enormous burden of expectations, as Rowling did here.

The use of pseudonyms by bloggers would be a far more interesting study.

Perez Hilton and the finance blog Zerohedge are just a couple of examples of successful blogs run by writers using fake names. They started as unknowns, but grew famous under their alias byline. The practice seems especially common for bloggers, and it’s hard to imagine a blogger’s not having written under another name—or at least under no byline—at some point in his or her career.

One factor would be the potential to limit one’s opportunities if the blog doesn’t work out. The Internet’s not very good at hiding things you don’t want potential employers or business partners to find.

What it means to “write what you know”: A writer who knows his subject, but may not be a skilled writer, will be better than the great writer who doesn’t have a clue about what he’s covering.

That’s the lesson in this piece from Ben Yagoda, and essentially the meaning behind “Write what you know.” I’ve written about several things I didn’t have a clue about, and I suspect you have done the same.

What then? That’s when, as Yagoda points out, reporting and research come in. It’s an extra step, but it certainly makes the writing process a more comfortable and clearer one. Or you could instead follow the advice to be wary of writing tips.

Digital writing leads to…plagiarism?: Student writing is getting sloppy, and social media and smartphones are to blame. It’s a story we’ve heard before, but the Pew Center has now quantified it by surveying writing teachers.

Students are writing more, but it’s more texting jargon than prose, according to surveyed teachers. Also, students are more frequently plagiarizing, we’re told, because they’re apparently desperate when assigned to write anything longer than a Facebook post.

That point seems dubious. Before social media, how much less were students writing? It’s possible that it’s easier to work with a clean slate when teaching a child to write, but it’s also possible that some of the social jargon kids are accustomed to might lend some stylistic tweaks to the way future generations write. That’s not all bad.

Evan Peterson is a writer based in Chicago, and the editor of OpenMarkets magazine at CME Group. He’s on Twitter at @evanmpeterson.

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