You don’t have to work in a zoo, the circus or pest control to come face to face with a wild beast at work. Sometimes they’re found lurking in our writing.
Sounds strange? Well, an out-of-control sentence can be a terrifying thing. Take this monster, based on a real-life example:
I have attached a document to this report – ‘Marketing budget for 2016’ – which explains at length our new strategy, including why we are reducing spending on broadcast advertising, and the process of selecting partner agencies to work with in consultation with the CEO, and specialists within the marketing department.
If you find yourself writing a sentence like this, you might end up feeling like you’re being attacked by your own creation. It’s frighteningly easy to get tangled up – and to make grammar and punctuation errors – when a sentence is 50 words long.
The reader has it even worse. Long, complicated sentences are hard to follow, because they force the reader to keep track of several ideas at the same time while they wait for the full picture to emerge.
Luckily, there are several ways to tame sentences that are starting to run wild. Here are three simple techniques that will have even the least domesticated sentences purring in your lap in no time.
One sentence, one idea
A sentence works best when it contains one idea. This means your reader has to take in only one thing at a time, making it easier for them to follow what you are saying.
You may fear that this approach will dumb down your style – but it actually does the opposite. By ensuring each sentence contains just a single idea, you free up your reader’s energy to focus on your point, rather than on trying to keep track of your thought process. This is crucial if what you’re communicating is complicated or technical (or, dare we say it, a bit dull).
It also makes your writing more powerful. If you string together several ideas in one sentence, they may each have less impact than if they were presented on their own. Take this example, which is based on a real-life letter to a customer:
We are very sorry for the mistake that happened as we have a number of new staff working in sales, and regrettably one of them misunderstood the information given to them about our prices, and advised that we were offering a universal 40 per cent discount, when in fact this was a time-limited offer for existing customers.
If we break down this sprawling sentence, we can see it contains three distinct ideas. They are:
1) We apologise for the mistake.
2) The mistake was caused by new staff misunderstanding our pricing.
3) The discount did not apply in this case.
Now let’s apply the one-sentence-one-idea model:
We are very sorry for quoting you the wrong price. This was because one of our new members of staff had misunderstood our pricing system. The 40 per cent discount you were offered in fact applies only to existing customers.
This is clearer and has more impact. It also feels less like a rather rambling excuse, and more like a genuine apology and explanation.
If it gets listy, put some bullets in it
If you find that you’re weighing down the tail of a sentence with several related ideas, a bulleted list may help. For example, instead of writing:
This document includes instructions on the program’s system requirements, how to use the program complete with screenshots, how to access the help file, whom to contact for more information, and licensing terms and conditions.
you can split it into bullet points:
This document includes:
• the program’s system requirements
• how to use the program (with screenshots)
• how to access the help file
• whom to contact for more information
• licensing terms and conditions.
(If you’re unsure how to punctuate bulleted lists, watch our short video that explains all.)
Full stop them in their tracks
Sometimes the simplest remedy is the best. If you find yourself agonising over whether to use a comma or a full stop, go for the full stop.
Stringing together lots of ideas using commas often makes a sentence harder to read. For example:
Thomas Atkins is the CEO of ACME Ltd, having founded the company in 1999, after seeing the low quality of widgets available at the time, responding with improved quality while charging the low prices ACME Ltd is still known for today.
Splitting the sentence in two makes its ideas much more definite. First, the reader learns who founded the company. Then, why he did so:
Thomas Atkins is the CEO of ACME Ltd, having founded the company in 1999. Atkins saw the low quality of widgets available at the time and responded by improving quality while charging the low prices ACME Ltd is still known for today.
Even now, the second sentence remains a bit unwieldy. In cases like this, consider splitting it into even smaller units. This allows you to elaborate on each idea independently, in a way that would be unreadable as a single sentence.
Thomas Atkins is the CEO of ACME Ltd, having founded the company in Bristol in 1999. Atkins was dissatisfied with the low quality of widgets available at the time, which were prone to breaking after a year’s use. So he dedicated himself to designing and producing better quality widgets, while charging the low prices ACME Ltd is still known for today.
One. Last. Thing.
We’re not suggesting that you eradicate commas and longer sentences altogether. Too many short sentences can give your writing a juddering, stop-start rhythm, which can be distracting for the reader.
We recommend a maximum length of about 35 words for sentences – but below that limit, don’t focus too much on length.
Instead, focus on the idea you want each sentence to communicate to your reader. You’ll find it much easier to write, punctuate and edit – and you’ll avoid unleashing any wild beasts.
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