Saturday, October 8, 2011

The final word, or: you've got the power.

Once upon a time, many years ago, when the kids were younger but no less goofy than they are today, I was driving us home from a visit to my mother in America's Heartland.  We'd been on the road for a long time -- it was about a twelve-hour drive from our house to Mom's, and I was in the habit of driving it straight through to save on hotels -- and we were all getting a little punchy.  As we drove through West Virginia, the girls decided it would be fun to pester Mom while she was driving.  I have no memory of what they said or did, but my response has gone down in the annals of family lore:  doing my very best impression of an Appalachian tour bus driver, I intoned, "Do not annoy the driver.  The driver is here for your comfort and safety."

Gales of laughter ensued, and we made it home without killing each other, which was the point.

Later, on another trip, the kids got rambunctious again, and again I trotted out my Appalachian tour bus driver schtick.  Through the giggles, one of the kids said, "Mom, shouldn't it be 'safety and comfort'?"  And I told her, "No, the last word has to be 'safety,' because that's the driver's biggest responsibility.  You always put the most important thing at the end of the sentence.  The last word is the power position."

I couldn't tell you where I picked up this little bit of writerly wisdom.  It might have been at some seminar for broadcast news writing, or from Ed Bliss's Writing News for Broadcast, or from Mervin Block's Writing Broadcast News Shorter, Sharper, Stronger.  But regardless of whether you're writing for the ear or for the eye, it's true:  The final word of your sentence is in the power position.  That's the thing your readers (or listeners) will take away with them.

If you think about it, it makes sense:  the last thing you hear or see is the thing you tend to remember.  If you've ever played that party game where a bunch of things are arrayed on a tray, you know what I'm talking about.  Somebody whisks off the cover of the tray and you get to look at it for a short period of time; then the cover is replaced, and you're supposed to make a list of all the things on the tray.  It's easy to remember the very last thing you saw, and probably the first thing, as well.  But listing the others is a struggle.

As you might have guessed from my analogy of the memory game, the first word in your sentence is in a pretty important position, too.  And I'm not denigrating any of the other words you might put in a sentence -- they all have a job to do.  But if you've got an idea or a concept that you want your readers to take home with them, put it in the power position.  And conversely, make sure that your final word is the one you want your readers to take away.

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