Power Up Your Writing With Parallel Construction

Power Up Your Writing with Parallel Construction

I haven’t done a post about the craft of writing for a little while, so today I thought I’d take a look at parallel construction.

Parallel construction (also known as parallelism) is a technique of good writing. It’s a way of constructing a sentence to show that two or more ideas within it are of equal importance.

You apply this principle by writing the sentence in grammatically parallel form, lining up a noun with a noun, a verb with a verb, or a phrase with a phrase.

Julius Caesar did it with three simple verbs:
I came; I saw; I conquered.

Winston Churchill did it with four nouns when he told the British people what to expect in World War II:
I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.

The need for parallel construction is most clearly seen in sentences that include the use of the conjunctions ‘and’ or ‘or’. Items linked in this way are parallel and therefore usually need to be expressed in the same grammatical forms (nouns, verbs, infinitives, adjectives, etc.). Here are some examples of faulty parallelism, each followed by one or more corrected versions:

1. To write well and listening well are important communication skills.

Correct parallel construction:

Writing well and listening well are important communication skills.

OR

To write well and to listen well are important communication skills.

2. Remind Judith to go to the store, the library, and check if the laundry is ready.

Correct parallel construction:

Remind Judith to go to the store, return her book to the library, and check if the laundry is ready.

OR

Remind Judith to go to the store, the library, and the dry cleaner’s.

3. He wanted three things out of university: to learn a skill, to make good friends, and learning about life.

Correct parallel construction:

He wanted three things out of university: to learn a skill, to make good friends, and to learn about life.

4. The reorganization of the company is neither simple nor will it be cheap.

Correct parallel construction:

The reorganization of the company will be neither simple nor cheap.

5. There’s nothing I like better than putting my feet up, switching on the TV, and to watch one of my favourite serials.

Correct parallel construction:

There’s nothing I like better than putting my feet up, switching on the TV, and watching one of my favourite serials.

Faulty parallelism is quite common among inexperienced writers, who may feel the need to change some components of a sentence for the sake of variety (as in many of the examples above).

Parallelism is a good thing to check for when reviewing your work, as it can present opportunities to strengthen it. For example, in an article I wrote recently for a client about how to succeed at job interviews, I originally wrote the following:

Try to relate the skills you acquired then to the job you’re now applying for.

On going through the draft article, I realised this was faulty parallelism. The words ‘then’ and ‘now’ need to be in the same relative position in the phrases concerned. So I changed it to:

Try to relate the skills you acquired then to the job you’re applying for now.

That’s better parallelism, and I think makes the sentence stronger.

In general, of course, parallel construction is a stylistic principle rather than a grammatical rule. Faulty parallelism is not in itself ‘wrong’, but if you are guilty of it, your writing will lack the impact it would otherwise have had. To illustrate this, I will close this post with a few classic examples of parallel construction.

The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.
– Winston Churchill

A college is a corner of men’s hearts where hope has not died. Here the prison house has not closed; here no battle is yet quite lost. Here, we assert, endow, and defend as final reality the best of our dream as men. Here lies our sense of community.
– Howard Lowry

We must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.
– Benjamin Franklin

Do not ask what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.
– John F. Kennedy

What we anticipate seldom occurs; what we least expected generally happens.
– Benjamin Disraeli

If you use the principle of parallel construction correctly – as the examples above demonstrate – your writing will be stronger and more compelling as a result.

If you have any comments or questions about parallel construction, as always, please do post them below.

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Writing for Newsjack

Sketches and One-Liners Wanted for Newsjack (BBC)

If you’re an aspiring comedy writer, here’s a market opportunity you should definitely check out.

The BBC’s satirical radio comedy show Newsjack is returning for a new run, and inviting submissions of short topical sketches and one-liners from freelance writers. This is primarily an opportunity for UK writers, though if you live outside the UK (and understand the British sense of humour!) there is nothing to stop you submitting work as well.

Submissions are open now, with a weekly deadline of 12.00 pm on Mondays from 11 September (last submissions for this series Monday 16 October 2017).

More information, including the format for submitting work and downloadable templates you can use, can be found on the BBC Newsjack website at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1hDdvFLfWClPHW7zT3sq01S/submit-a-sketch. You can also view example sketches and one-liners on this page.

And there are more tips on writing for Newsjack in this BBC Blog post from 2015.

This is, of course, a paying opportunity. Payments are as follows:

£43.00 per minute for sketches
£21.50 per 30 seconds for sketches
£21.50 per one-liner

They say this fee will take in all rights for the work on a non-exclusive basis (so no repeat fees, unfortunately!).

This is a great entry-level opportunity for anyone hoping to get into radio comedy writing. If you consistently submit work that gets noticed, you may be invited to join the show’s team of commissioned writers, which in turn will present all sorts of further networking opportunities.

It’s also a market I have a soft spot for, as some years ago I had a number of sketches and one-liners accepted by the long-running predecessor of Newsjack, Weekending. I was invited to meet the show’s producer and was sounded out about joining the writing team, but in the end decided against as it would have meant relocating to be nearer London.

Good luck if you decide to try submitting work to Newsjack. Please do leave a comment below if you are successful!

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