Delete the last sentence

Over the years, I’ve received a lot of feedback on my writing. Some of it has been helpful, some less so. Little of it has coalesced into rules that I could easily share, but once piece of advice stands out: delete the last sentence.

I first received this advice when I was in high school. A young and idealistic NJROTC cadet ensign, I wrote several memos to our commanding officer about various incidents. I had a tendency to close with a request that he take the action I desired. Ryan Brown was remarkably kind and mature for a high school senior — instead of ignoring it or getting angry and dismissing me out of hand, he took me aside. “Cotton,” he told me, “the next time you write a memo, delete the last sentence.”

I thought of this again recently when I was replying to a message on a community mailing list. I don’t remember what the person wrote, but it was off-topic. I was going to say “This is off-topic for the devel list”, which is benign on its face, but didn’t really add anything except an implied “fuck you, go away”. My experience is that the last sentence in a reply like that is almost always inflammatory.

I get it. When you’re writing something, you want to have a good close that really drives your point home. I catch myself doing that all the time. But if you’re writing well, particularly in email, you don’t need a punchy ending because you’ve already made your point. In the above, other parts of my reply already indicated that the message wasn’t suitable for the list, and I explained why. Repeating myself there didn’t add any value to my reply, it was just repeating myself for the sake of repetition.