On Writing: Parallel Construction

I like to write. That can make me a piss-poor writing coach – I think the best teachers are often the ones who have battled a subject hand-to-hand and understand its devilish ways, rather than those who see a subject through a lover’s uncritical eyes. But whether seen as pleasure or pain, writing is a craft, and it can be practiced and taught. Happily, I don’t have to be a good writing coach – I have a better one for you. Ready?

Go out and buy or borrow The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White.  Read all 85 pages.

There. I guarantee you are now a better writer than you were before. The Elements of Style is that good.

Strunk and White taught me one particular concept that I now think about often as I write: parallel construction. That is, the idea that (as S&B put it) we should “express coordinate ideas in similar form.” In other words, things that hang together in idea should hang together in format, too. Perhaps wanting to lend a little divine weight to their instruction, Strunk and White give an example of parallel construction from the Christian Bible:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

Using the same first phrase (“blessed are they”) in each sentence, and mirroring the first and second half of the sentence with the colon in between, gives the whole the weight of prophesy and the beauty of poetry. Imagine if the writer had decided that the reader would get bored by having the same first word in each sentence, so opened a thesaurus and came up with some alternate words and sentence construction:

Blessed are the poor in spirit because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

They that mourn are sacred and they will be comforted.

Meek people are hallowed and the earth shall be their inheritance.

Hunger and thirsting after righteousness is heavenly and will be rewarded by fullness.

Okay, that last one was pretty pathetic. And I hope I am forgiven for mucking about with sacred texts. But see? Parallel construction gives music and rhythm to writing, and without it even breathtaking ideas fall flat.

Parallel construction is important within sentences and paragraphs (keeping to the same tense throughout, for example) but it is also something to think about throughout a whole document, and across documents that are part of a set. So, for example, decide whether you want numbered lists or bulleted lists in your document, and don’t flip flop between the two as if you can’t decide which is better. Just chose. (It’s harder to give examples of parallel construction in terms of grammar and style, but since I’ve already pointed you to good old S&B I am going to consider myself off the hook.)

And about documents that are part of a set: parallel construction can save you, not just in terms of making your writing nicer to read, but in terms of delivering on your commitments. Think of a project’s documents as chapters in one book, or issues of one journal. Proposal, work plan, quarterly reports, annual report, performance monitoring plan, budget. These documents should, as much as possible, have parallel construction. They should relate to each other. From a fastidious communication perspective they should use the same format (font, justification, color scheme) but much more importantly their content should be parallel, use the same language for the same idea, and relate directly back to the same deliverables or outcomes.

If this seems self-evident, good. For me it came as a bolt out of the blue a number of years ago when I took a last look at an annual report that I was about to submit and realized that I was reporting on lots of fabulous things…that weren’t in the performance monitoring plan. And that my quarterly report wasn’t going to help me write that annual report better, because the formats didn’t mesh. And that my activity reporting numbers were no longer comparable to baseline because we had split an activity into two different sub activities and were now tracking them separately.

Keep to a parallel structure, and like the yellow lines on the road it will keep you from disaster.

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