Skip to content

Parallel Structure in Biographical Articles

Which sentence employs the more grammatically pleasing structure?

  1. John Denver is remembered for his passionate music, his effervescent spirit, and his love of nature.   OR
  2. John Denver is remembered for his passionate music, the effervescence of his spirit, and his love of nature.

Most readers will prefer the first sentence because the descriptions run smoothly (possessive pronoun, adjective, noun). In the second sentence, “the effervescence of his spirit” breaks away from the pattern and forces the reader to readjust his comprehension.

Every college writing course pounds this form of parallel structure (or parallelism) into students’ pens. But parallelism doesn’t stop at the period. For the experienced writer, it can extend throughout a whole paragraph, or even a whole argument. My favorite example is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech in which he used a driving, emotional “key phrase” in every sentence. (If you listen closely, he also used parallel inflection to deliver the lines.)

How does parallel structure apply to writing biographical articles?

Writing a biographical article for an online journal or a newspaper is inherently difficult, because the author must not only maintain his readers’ interest through all aspects of the story but also advance his main argument at every juncture in the narrative. By employing parallel structures at key points in the article, the author can create a recurring rhythm. Just as the chorus of a song brings the listener back to the overall theme after every stanza, a recurring rhythm in a biography brings the reader back to the argument after every episode.

But enough of my explanation. Let’s have a look at a fantastic–and, at a whopping 5,000 words, lengthy–article from Tablet Magazine. This is how Allison Hoffman ends each of her three main sections. (In order to show the types of parallel structures used, I will highlight them with differet font colors.)

1. As one long-time observer of Israeli politics noted, “If you look at Ron [Dermer], you see Bibi [Netanyahu].” This week, when the prime minister addresses the member states of the United Nations, amid heated debate and a potential vote on Palestinian statehood, the face the world will see will be Netanyahu’s, but the words they hear—many of them, at least—will be Dermer’s.

2. By that time, Dermer was known as the country’s leading expert on the Russian vote, and during the campaign, Sharansky offered his protégé’s expertise to Netanyahu’s faltering leadership campaign. According to Sharansky, Netanyahu was unnerved by the hard news Dermer delivered. “Bibi calls me and says, this guy [Dermer] really hates me,” Sharansky said. “But the next time they met they fell in love.”

3. That spring, nearly a decade after arriving in Israel, Dermer was dispatched to Washington in his first official government capacity, as the Israeli Embassy’s minister for economic affairs, under the auspices of Netanyahu, who was then serving as minister of finance under Ariel Sharon. Taking the job required Dermer, at 33, to give up his American citizenship. By then he had remarried—his wife, Rhoda, is a Yale-trained lawyer—and become a father. In a column for the New York Sun, Dermer offered a public goodbye: “I will never renounce America or its people. As a faithful son of America, I will never betray its ideals. In serving the State of Israel and in working to secure our common future, I will champion those ideals all of my life. May God forever bless America.”

The texts in maroon represent a classical parallel structure: a chronological adjective phrase preceding the subject of the sentence.  Each of these comes at or near the beginning of the paragraph, setting the stage for the repeated idea.

In blue we find the repeated characters: Ron Dermer, Bibi Netanyahu, and in the second section, Natan Sharansky.

The phrases in olive all describe negative incidents that provide the contexts for the paragraphs’ main points.

Lastly, the pink texts deliver the paragraphs’ main points, all of which pair a negative perception with a positive reality. By filling these end-of-section paragraphs with similar structures, Hoffman signaled a return to the nuanced influence of Dermer’s American ideas (he’s a native Floridian on the Israeli Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu.

As a copy editor here at Letter Perfect Copyediting, part of my job is to strengthen authors’ rhythms. Personally, I would have recommended tidying up the parallel structures a bit to make them even more clear. As they stand, the parallels are a little difficult to detect and, although subtlety has advantages, it is more important to draw readers’ attentions to the main argument.


Love Thy Reader

According to Donald Miller, a writer should write to his readers as though he loved them, as though he cared deeply about how his words will affect their lives.

Unfortunately, writing a book or an article is not as simple as writing a letter to a loved one. Loved ones — precisely because they know each other well — share a language. It’s not just terms of endearment; it’s a whole lexicon and grammar that together attribute emotions to the written word in a way that reflects the individuals’ experiences together.

Except for columnists with devoted audiences (how we envy those writers!), authors do not have the luxury of sharing an intimate language with their readers. The writer has to forge an intimate relationship out of the space between the anonymous reader’s eyes and the page. In this task, proper word usage and standardized grammar are an author’s bread and butter — they create the space for intimacy to grow.

But threatening to imperil that intimacy are wordy sentences, improper punctuation, awkward turns of phrase, misspelled words, and so forth. They distract the reader from the content and hurt the author’s chance of building an intimate relationship. Keen attention to detail might protect the writer from these dangers. Yet an obsession with detail might also distract him from the content of the relationship he hopes to build with readers.

This is where I, as a copy editor, can really aid the author’s task. I take what the author writes — the content — and fine-tune the delivery. That way, the author can focus on formulating the ideas and rely on me to clean up any technical blunders.

Academic writing is particularly tricky for the author. The readers, usually fellow scholars and often superiors, rely on specific writing and citation styles that suit their particular fields (APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.). Any deviation from the preferred style can be seen as unprofessional, even disrespectful of the field. With this kind of pressure, it’s not surprising that most academic writing is pretty dry! All too often, the pressure to conform to a style overpowers the author’s passion and Donald Miller’s advice, “Love your reader,” becomes an unreachable goal.

Use a copy editor and let your passion shine through!

Copyediting - Feel the Love!

Excellent cartoon from Speed Bump

Speed Bump, by Dave Coverly, at (Click on the picture to see more of Dave Coverly’s awesome comic strip!)

For help making your commas and apostrophes stay in their proper places, check out my Academic Copyediting Services!!!

The Wildest Freedom, a Rhyme for the Banned

“I wish to write such rhymes as shall not suggest a restraint, but contrariwise the wildest freedom”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journal, June 27, 1839

Emerson would have approved of greengeekgirl‘s post in honor of Banned Books Week. Her call for free thought stood at the core of the transcendentalism he represented. I suspect her use of the rhyme would bring Dr. Emerson great joy.

Rhyming is an elegant but oft-neglected component of prose. It ranks up there with alliteration as one of the best attention-grabbers in the arsenal of English writing. The problem, as Dr. Emerson rightly penned in his journal, is that forcing our words into a rhyme often constricts us. If you’re like me, you probably have to resort to a rhyming dictionary just to assemble a four-line poem; even then, the structure is just a bit too stocky. Unfortunately, when you force a rhyme, it shows and it doesn’t look good.

A rhyme is meant to free the text from rigidity. A little deviation from strict sentence structure helps a lot. The rhyme should break through the reader’s emotions and spark a snicker or a shudder.

So then the question for someone like me is how to copy-edit a rhyme. My answer is you let the sentence form around the rhyme. Never force the rhyme to fit the sentence.

Thank you, greengeekgirl and your co-author at Insatiable Booksluts:

“So, banned books week is nigh upon us; starting September 24 and ending October 1, it’s a supposedly naughty way to kick off the season of chills, thrills, and stuffing yourself to the gills.”

Article of the Day – Writing a Post-Election Recap

ED Koch and Bob Turner

ED Koch and Bob Turner

Tuesday’s special election in New York’s 9th, replacing the politician resigning his office for lewd-texting a picture of his no-longer-private parts, was the major Democratic upset discussed across the nation Wednesday morning. A non-Jewish Republican (Bob Turner) garnered the observant Jewish vote against a Democrat (David Weprin) with more experienced and the added benefit of being Jewish.

How should we go about reporting on this election? There’s the metonymic approach, where the reporter records the reactions of a few people lounging around the local bar and describes them as representatives of the voting populace. Or the reporter can call in the experts, the James Carville types, and have weave together their analyses to paint the larger picture.Alternatively, the reporter can pick a particular angle of the election to elaborate and conduct some “investigative journalism.” Of course, there’s always the old standby where the editors just pull the statistics off the wire service along with the official party responses, add a little of their own background and commentary, and voila!, they bill the article as breaking news.

In the realm of election reporting, not all approaches are equal and the better authors employ more than a little creativity. Ben Jacobs’ article on Tablet Magazine — “Republican-Jewish Coalition” — is an outstanding of merging a variety of styles so that readers (especially those, like me, who read far too many elections articles) stay tuned in for the full length of the piece.

Each section (there are three of them) of Jacobs’ article tackles a different aspect of the election. His first section uses some of the wire information — listing the candidates, the basic background, and the poll numbers — but quickly gets to the down and dirty question of why voters chose the Turner over Weprin. This is what we should call the soul-searching approach: the author presents the variety of alternatives for choosing the candidate (many of which, no doubt, other reporters have picked up on) and boils down to the one he believes is most true of voters and, in this case, perhaps the most troubling for readers.

You see, the Jacobs is trying to convey the idea that the observant Jews voted for Turner because they saw Weprin as abandoning his religious values and not supporting Israel strongly enough, while they Turner as more principled, though his principles were likely at odds with their own, and more supportive of Israel, though his knowledge of US-Israeli relations was questionable. Given that the target audience at Tablet Magazine is primarily Jewish, this is a provocative way to open his article. The fact that he does this in only 3 paragraphs shows his writing prowess.

His second section, another mere 3 paragraph, changes tactics and drives the point home. Here he takes us to the social scene and shares the words of some Jewish voters, shedding light on some of the rumors, political machinations, and loyalties influencing voters on both sides of the aisle.

The final section (considerably longer than the previous sections) takes yet another approach and asks the burning question of what the election means for the national political trends. To answer this question, he turns to the experts. His key source is former New York City Mayor Democrat Ed Koch, who turned the tables on the election by endorsing Turner. Jacobs quotes Koch as reading this election as a wake-up call to President Obama to re-think his stance towards Israel. In a bit of irony, Jacobs paints Turner as a man who, as opposed to Mayor Koch, has not thought too much about policy towards Israel yet, but merely appeared more pro-Israel than his veteran Democrat opponent.

Considering the detail of the comments on the article at Tablet Magazine, I’d say Tablet readers found this article both engaging and controversial. If Mr. Jacobs was hoping to spark some discussion, he has certainly achieved that goal.

“Better Questions Make Better Debates” says Tevi Troy

As the bickering intensified at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library during Wednesday night’s Republican Presidential Primary debate, the moderators seemed determined to portray the candidates as bickering old fools.  Some of them probably are, but that’s for another time

Sadly, the debate largely skirted the differences in political philosophy between the candidates. Even Ron Paul–the indefatigable figure-head of the young Libertarians–focused more on policies than attributes of character or beliefs about governance. During one of the few mildly philosophical moments in the debate, Brian Williams–a moderator, not a candidate–rhetorically reprimanded the audience for applauding Rick Perry’s statement in support of the death penalty, asking Perry if he was disturbed by the roundly positive response (Perry took the applause in stride). Had Williams turned the applause into a serious discussion about notions of justice, the debate may have produced meaningful responses, but he had other policy questions to ask.

Tevi Troy

Tevi Troy challenges the debate moderators to pose philosophical questions.

Just days before the debate, Tevi Troy of Hudson Institute predicted this and presented his own list of questions in Politico (one of the debate’s sponsors). He recommended the moderators do away with the “gotcha” questions and,

“Instead, journalists should focus on some key philosophical questions that get to the heart of what it means to be a conservative in 2011 and how that might shape the decisions a candidate might make as president.”

For Mr. Troy, the problem is that gotcha questions typically result in “parallel press conferences” rather than meaty debates that tell voters something about what the candidates stand for. His solution: rather than asking the candidates what they would do about the health care bill, ask them “Is health care a right?” Rather than ask about the legitimacy of the President’s military adventures in Libya, ask “What is the role of the Constitution in modern America?”

We tend to blame candidates for evading questions, or carefully disclosing their beliefs, but those of us asking the questions bear a responsibility for setting the tone of the discussion. This goes for a presidential debate as much as it does for a class lecture or even a play. No author should blame his or her readers when the text fails to convey the intended message. That failure rests on the author’s pen and choice of style. For Tevi Troy, the failure to reveal significant insights into the candidates’ philosophies at Wednesday night’s debate should fall squarely on the moderators’ shoulders.

Grammar Lesson: Ever wonder why we teach our students to “pick a tense and stick to it” throughout their essays? After all, in truth, most authors combine a variety of tenses in order to make their writing more enjoyable. The reason is that tense is the most basic form of tone we have. Past, present, and future, tied with standard, intensive, progressive, and perfect forms and indicative, imperative, and subjunctive moods (and any others I’ve left out), provide the fundamental textual motions in our language. The ability of a reader to understand a text as the author intended it relies firstly on the author’s control of those basic motions.

While an experienced author employs those tenses, forms, and moods as his trusted tools, our young school-age writers often find that controlling them is a daunting task–hence, we tell them to “pick a tense and stick to it.” With some practice, they’re able to write moving novels, present their convictions, and, perhaps, even prod a presidential candidate to answer a philosophical question.

Articles of the Day – New Libya and the Jews

A National Transitional Council now controls the majority of Libya, formerly the realm of an always-controversial dictator, Muammar al-Qaddafi. How the transitional government handles relations with Libyan minorities will answer many of the burning questions regarding the nature of future Libyan politics.

Libyan Jews represent a particularly difficult minority for the new Libyan government because Qaddafi expelled the country’s Jews after the Six-Day War and took over their property. Wrecked heritage sites remain sore spots for Libyan Jews, and if the new government seeks to establish good human rights credentials, it may have to reimburse them for destroyed synagogues and desecrated cemeteries in some fashion.

Another potential challenge surrounding the Libyan Jews is their relations with adherents of the Amazigh, or Berber, tribal societies, who challenge the Arab- and urban-based hierarchy in North Africa. An Amazigh political movement, strengthened by relations with the international Jewish community, would be a source for social discord in a country where racist sentiments against both are deeply ingrained. Amazigh political activists share many political interests with Jews and with Israel. By way of comparison, both groups date their heritages to before the advent of Islam and feel threatened by Islamist as well as Arab nationalist politics. Bruce Maddy-Weitzman published an insightful article on Moroccan Amazigh relations with Israel this past Winter.

Lesson of the Day: A Multiplicity of Styles

James Kirchirk’s article on Tablet Magazine, Right of Return, provides an excellent point and counter-point discussion of the potential for reconciliation between the new Libyan government and the country’s Jewish refugees and expatriates. The point and counter-point style is rather difficult to manage, but the author does an excellent job of it, expressing skepticism of his sources without undercutting the force of their statements.

Lisa Palmieri-Billig’s article on Jerusalem Post, Amazigh Rebels Embrace Representative of Libyan Jews, presents a completely different writing style: spotlighting a single character’s activities in Libya. The article is a heartfelt and optimistic depictions of minority interests under the new government.

Lastly, Alex Joffe’s Libya and the Jews, gives an elegant historical lens to the situation, describing in detail Jews’ heritage in Libya and their relations with past Libyan governments.

As an author, selecting the style of your paper is crucial. You must take into account your audience’s likes and preconceptions. Combining these styles in a short paper is extremely difficult. My recommendation is that once you’ve completed some background research, choose a style that speaks to you and your readers, and then stick to it completely.

For example, Palmieri-Billig’s article poignantly opens every paragraph in the body of her article with a descriptive account of Amazigh-Jewish relations and leaves the standard journalism (political contexts, external sources, etc.) for the body of the paragraphs. Joffe’s paragraphs are similar, in that each opens with a wide historical tone. He restricts the details to the supporting ideas within the paragraphs. On the other hand, Kirchirk’s style forces him to use a variety of paragraph types, so that readers can easily sense the difference in tone between both characters’ statements, as well as his own commentary.