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The last word

Plants are fueled by a simple sugar that results from a magic combination of sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide: glucose. To borrow from Dylan Thomas, glucose is “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” When this sweet power source runs low, a plant experiences a chlorophyll shortage, which triggers it to do something remarkable. A plant that’s running on empty favors (that is, stimulates extra growth in) the latent buds at its branch tips. Gardeners call this phenomenon “terminal dominance.”

Did you notice that, like sugar-deprived plants, the sentences in the previous paragraph all push their energy to the terminus? In sentence after sentence, the most important word appears just before the period. Any of these sentences could serve as an example under the Strunk & White “Elements of Style” principle, “Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.”

But beware. Periodic sentences, if you take them too far, become tedious. When you use this approach relentlessly, especially when you front-load your sentences with phrases that delay gratification, your readers, who, if you’re lucky, want to find out what you’re getting at, will begin to focus not on what you’re saying but on your… syntax.

So, by all means, avoid overuse of this suspense-building technique, of which many writers from Cicero to Tolstoy have been masters. Reserve your power.

Then, when you’re ready to make The Big Point, when you’ve reached the climax of your argument, when you’ve come to the main thing that you want readers to remember — whether you’re writing a brochure, a blog entry, an essay, a letter of recommendation, a technical explanation, a white paper, a scholarly article, a poem, or anything else that requires development — when your most powerful word has worked its way down to your fingertips and is practically bursting, you know where to put it: Here.

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  1. December 18, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    I hadn’t thought of this. This is a super tip. Great thing to be aware of.

  2. December 18, 2010 at 10:37 pm

    Keith, Hope this tip makes your writing even more satisfying.

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