Saving the Best for Last
I read a paper today by a friend who is in seminary, and I was able to help him improve his writing with a tip I call “saving the best for last.” I remembered that I had posted an article on this last year, and since I’m in a bit of a time crunch, I figured I’d do the old blogger cop-out: a repost. It’s good advice though, and worth taking another look at!
People adopt various strategies for eating dinner. Some mix all the dishes into a single slop and eat it all together. “It’s all going to the same place,” is their defense. Others keep their food in carefully separated piles, but rotate in a clockwise direction: a bite of broccoli, a taste of mashed potatoes, a forkful of roast beef, repeat. Others are less conscientious about such matters and simply jump about the plate helter-skelter.
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Perhaps the most common strategy, however, particularly among children, is to save the best for last. If the lima beans must be eaten, we might as well gulp them down first and get them out of the way. But that steaming peach cobbler — that we’ll hold off on till the plate is otherwise clean. That way there will be no distractions and each bite might engage our full attention.
Sentences are like a meal, and the best strategy is almost always the same:
Save the most important part of a sentence for the end.
Our minds best focus on the last thing we’ve heard, so saving a sentence’s punch for the end is usually the best way to make an impression on your reader. Check out the differences between these examples:
- okay: The violinist’s final number left everyone breathless because of his passionate playing.
- better: Because of his passionate playing, the violinist’s final number left everyone breathless.
- okay: The forbidden castle stood stark and ominous against the darkening sky.
- better: Stark and ominous against the darkening sky stood the forbidden castle.
Notice how this long sentence leaves the most powerful and important few words for last:
With these hopes and in this belief I would urge you, laying aside all hindrance, thrusting away all private aims, to devote yourself unswervingly and unflinchingly to the vigorous and successful prosecution of this war. 1
It’s possible, of course, to overdo it — to get in the habit of saving the best part of every sentence for the end. This can lead to a monotonous and predictable style. If you do it every time, nothing stands out. But carefully consider the structure of each sentence. Weigh the options, and when it works, save the best for last.
This rule, by the way, not only works for words in a sentence, but for sentences in a paragraph and for paragraphs in a composition. What comes last is best etched in the minds of your readers. Make it count.
1 Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White, p. 33
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Recently, as I finished writing an article, I couldn’t figure out why a particular sentence in my conclusion seemed wrong. Finally deduced that the best part came first, rather than last. Er, wait, I should say, instead: rather than last, the best part came first!