Writing In Parallel

One of the biggest mistakes I see in first drafts — both among beginning writers who don’t know any better and experienced writers who are simply bad at editing themselves — is a proclivity to produce lopsided sentences.

Good communication is predicated on an aptitude for emphasis and priority. If there’s one quality all “good” writers have in common — whether they’re producers of fiction, nonfiction, memoir, news features or essays — it’s an ability to exhibit information on a sort of inverted pyramid of importance: with the most essential items in the most visible locations, the least important items in the least visible locations, and all similar items grouped together.

This is the practice of writing in parallel structure. It’s a discipline that’s especially useful in the editing phase, where sentences are fine-tuned to showcase patterns (literal, numeric, symbolic, syllabic), repetitions (both literal repetition of words and figurative repetition) and themes (arranged by relevance, context, priority).

For the sake of illustrating my point, take the below example, one that editors of media outlets no doubt see all the time:

Example (bad): Those in favor of the bill’s passage include United States Senator Chuck Schumer, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Tom Vilsack, USDA Secretary of Agriculture.

These sorts of flubs are caught regularly in the copy-editing stage. It’s an easy mistake, one that anyone can make if they’re tired or aren’t paying attention. Here, a modifying job title has followed the last subject in the sentence, while it preceded the former subjects. It should actually read something like this:

Example (good): Those in favor of the bill include United States Senator Chuck Schumer, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

At its most basic, parallel writing ensures your thoughts are expressed evenly so they’re absorbed in a manner that’s as coherent and digestible as possible. There are times when this is a natural — almost automatic — process. Just listen to your ear. There are other times however, when our inner orators take over and we mistakenly assume that by putting emphasis on a final thought we’re lending it precedence, when in actuality we’re placing a sore thumb on the page by arranging it in a sequence that doesn’t align with the rest of the information in the sentence. Take the below example:

Example (bad): We’re going to need to respond, engage and rely on education.

Example (good): We’re going to need to respond, engage and educate.

Another common example of unparalleled structure occurs when the writer describes a series of events, and uses a past or present tense to denote one verb, and a participle to denote another. Mind you, the sentence may still be grammatically sound, but the sentiment would be communicated with more efficiency if it expressed the same verb form in every case.

Example (bad): We talked about how Billy’s negative behavior affected other children in the class, skipping over all the ways in which he’d made progress.

Example (good): We talked about how Billy’s negative behavior affected other children in the class, and skipped over all the ways in which he’d made progress.

Most important, parallel structures ensure related ideas are grouped — and hence, expressed — together. Remember: you want to communicate with emphasis. A sentence expressing similar ideas at polar ends is probably going to be transmitted with less efficiency than a sentence expressing its core ideas in unison.

Example (bad): The poor air quality in Los Angeles is noticeable, whereas in Vancouver and Seattle it is quite good.

Example (good): The air quality in Los Angeles is poor, whereas in Vancouver and Seattle it is quite good.

If you’ll notice in all the examples I’ve mentioned, editing our sentences to make them parallel has shortened their lengths. This furthers the notion that parallel structures are an exercise in emphasis, because they almost always manage to transmit ideas with more efficiency and economy than a sentence that displays information in a disparate and willy-nilly fashion.

Of course, there are some sentences that just aren’t going to be parallel no matter what you do. Further, there are some sentences you’re not going to want to make parallel. One example would be a sentence that contains a dominant and subordinate clause. Sentences with dominant and subordinate clauses are purposefully lopsided, because one clause is intended to modify the other. But there are two factors to remember here: one, these structures should always be made clear to the reader; and two, you should make sure the elements in the dominant clause remain parallel with each other, and the elements in the subordinate clause do the same. Here’s an example:

Example (bad): Shocked and upset, the director yelled at the actors for their terrible performances, as well as the grip, who fell asleep behind the camera.

In this case, “shocked and upset” is the subordinate clause because it’s not a full sentence, and it modifies the dominant stand-alone clause that “the director yelled at the actors for their terrible performances, as well as the grip, who fell asleep behind the camera.” Here, the dominant clause could use a great deal of tweaking, because the behavior of the actors is not displayed in a manner parallel with the behavior of the grip.

Example (good): Shocked and upset, the director yelled at the actors, who performed terribly, as well as the grip, who fell asleep behind the camera.

When it comes to exhibiting parallel structure between two or more sentences, you need to make sure you cast the illusion that the thought in one sentence has transfered seamlessly to the next. This can be done beautifully by employing the use of repetition.

“We walked down the stairs instead of taking the elevator. The carpet on the stairs was worn.”

— Ernest Hemingway, “A Farewell to Arms”

I chose Hemingway only to make things easy on myself (Hemingway did this sort of thing all the time). But you don’t have to literally repeat words to enable a transfer of ideas between sentences. Repetition can also involve the practice of echoing or evolving ideas, or taking a figurative expression and expanding upon it. Take this example below:

“Our marriage had been a war, a good eighteenth-century war, fought by many rules, most of them broken if the prize to be gained was bright enough, but we had developed the cheerful respect of one enemy general for another.”

— Norman Mailer, "An American Dream"

As you can see, writers seeking to express an important theme or idea can do so not only by literally repeating words, but by taking an implied idea or metaphorical relationship expressed in one sentence and further evolving it in the next. This is also a wonderful way to transition between paragraphs, where a preceding block of text expresses a figurative relationship and the following paragraph expands upon that idea, albeit in a different manner.

No matter what you do, you’ll always want to make sure your transitions are smooth, subtle and sensible. The best writing transmits ideas on a subliminal plain, in a manner that enables the reader to understand the information being transmitted without the creeping suspicion that the writer has been heavy-handed in its delivery. A knack for identifying and shaping parallel structures will be especially handy for writers in the editing phase, where raw ideas are melded into finely tuned expressions, but ultimately it’s a discipline that should influence how you express all ideas — your words, your sentences, your stories.

Jon Gingerich

Column by Jon Gingerich

Jon Gingerich is editor of O'Dwyer's magazine in New York. His fiction has been published in literary journals such as The Oyez Review, Pleiades, Helix Magazine, as well as The New York Press, London’s Litro magazine, and many others. He currently writes about politics and media trends at www.odwyerpr.com. Jon holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School. Some of his published fiction can be found at www.jongingerich.com.

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Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer June 27, 2012 - 1:47pm

Good article.