Writing Tip: Unpack Your Suitcase

Portmanteau, or suitcase, sentences are long sentences packed with lots of information. They’re called that, says James Kilkpatrick in his now-defunct Charlotte Observer column, “The Writer’s Art,” “for the 16th-century suitcase. It was huge. You could pack everything into a portmanteau. Without pausing for a burp, it could swallow 10 suits, six robes, four pairs of shoes, a month’s worth of underwear and three fifths of Scotch.”

There’s nothing wrong with suitcase sentences per se, as long as they’re grammatically sound. Take a look at this sentence:

Seems the pressure that has been placed on advertising and marketing teams in our industry is that e-mail communications (which, based on every metric I have seen, continues to generate some of the most impressive and trackable return on investment) has been designated as the budget whipping boy.

The sentence isn’t ungrammatical. But readers are looking to quickly digest your wisdom. They want you to get to the point quickly. Though they’re understandable, suitcase sentences take more time to comprehend. They slow readers down. You risk your readers getting frustrated and tuning out.

Yet there’s no need to dumb-down content. Readers aren’t unintelligent, just busy. Your best bet is to split the suitcase sentence into two or more sentences. Let’s unpack that sentence above:

Based on every metric I’ve seen, e-mail continues to generate some of the most impressive and trackable ROI. Yet advertising and marketing teams are pressured to make e-mail communications the budget whipping boy.

We’ve regrouped the ideas a bit, trying to preserve the same punch of the whipping boy at the end. We’ve introduced the idea with how valuable e-mail is; it generates impressive ROI. We’ve then put the idea of ad and marketing teams being pressured closer to the rest of the thought (e-mail comm being a whipping boy) We’ve ended it with the punch: that despite being valuable, e-mail comm is a whipping boy.

Next time you notice a suitcase lurking in your writing, stop to consider whether it should be unpacked.

Need more help unpacking your suitcase and other writing challenges? E-mail me or post a comment below!

About Erin Brenner

With a BA and an MA in English, Erin has been an editing professional for 15 years, working on a variety of media, especially online. Her niche is business/marketing and online. In addition, she has experience teaching editing to non-editors and coaching writers. In 2008, Erin was bitten by the social media bug...hard. Follow her on Twitter, @ebrenner, and get a daily vocabulary word, a link to the article of the day, and much more. You can also find her on Facebook and LinkedIn.
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