Where was I?
Have you ever set off to get something from the kitchen, then been distracted by some other thought? You arrive in the kitchen and suddenly think, “What was I looking for here?”
You might retrace your steps, returning to the starting point so you can remember what you wanted.
Nobody enjoys that experience. Yet, as writers, we often inflict something similar on our readers
The “where was I?” sentence
A sentence might start by introducing the subject, then throw in extra bits of insight or qualifying information before coming to the verb. These might include:
- Clauses, sometimes bounded by commas, that expand on the content of sentence
- Parenthetical asides (like this one) that offer commentary
- Thoughts linked with semicolons or em-dashes—the signal for informal interjections—that eventually resolve at the end of the sentence.
There’s nothing wrong with these stylistic practices. They often reflect the nuanced nature of our thoughts or message. They definitely project an educated tone, if the grammar works.
But pile them together and the writing gets pretty dense. These wandering sentences require the reader to juggle different mental images in working memory. The reader needs to hold the concept from the beginning of the sentence, power through the interceding ideas, and connect them at the end.
Metaphorically, they are setting off for the kitchen at the start of the sentence. Will they remember what they were doing when they reach the end?
More common than you may realize
Here’s a fun test: When you’re reading a nonfiction book or article, make a note every time you have to double back through a sentence. Put a pencil check mark in the margin.
You may double back more than you realized, or at least stop to check yourself and remember where you started.
We don’t always notice this behavior as we read. It’s subtle. We might feel fatigue or boredom, without recognizing the culprit—juggling ideas in our head as we navigate complex sentences.
The mental multi-tasking imposes a cognitive burden. The reader tuckers out a little sooner. It’s a real problem if you’re trying to reach a reader who meets any of the following categories.
- They’re not inherently fascinated with your topic
- They’re reading because they have to, rather than because they want to
- They have other distractions. (Don’t we all?)
- They’re tired.
Does your prose tax your readers?
You probably learned to use elaborate, qualifying clauses in college or graduate school. Academic writing is rife with complex sentence structures. You may not realize you’ve got a problem.
Many of the great works we read and admire use complex sentences. Consider this doozy from the Declaration of Independence:
We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.
I’ve italicized the main subject and verb: We do publish and declare. See how long it takes to connect the subject with the verb!
We’ve been trained to write this way in school. Often, we must untrain ourselves.
- Grammar checkers won’t flag these sentences, assuming the grammar is correct.
- Readers won’t let you know. They might give up on the project, or force themselves through it for your sake. They may not even realize why they find it slow going, and assume it’s because of the topic, rather than your decisions.
When I’m working with a nonfiction author, I’ll mark these kinds of sentences. Authors don’t always appreciate my cries for simplification, but their readers will.
Scan your words for “Where was I” sentences
Here are a few checks you can do on your own work.
- Scan for long sentences. When you find a string of them, try breaking up a few. If nothing else, vary the rhythm for the reader. Mixing longer and shorter sentences appeals to the reader’s inner ear.
- Count how many em-dashes and parentheses you find in your writing. If they’re everywhere, then you are adding to the multi-tasking burden of your reader.
- Find a reader who is sensitive to their wandering mind and ask them to mark every time their attention flags or they have to check back in the sentence to find the subject.
Yes, this will add time to your revision process. But any time you can lessen the cognitive burden on your reader, it’s a win for both of you.