Sentences that snatch our readers' attention get positive results. Whether you're back working in the office or still in your jim-jams, no one has the time or inclination to slog through a convoluted statement. Maybe the content is interesting, but people will ignore it if it's hard to read.
Perhaps business writers of old could get away with writing 60-word sentences, but for today's readers, poor sentences are bad for business. By some estimates, bad writing costs up to $400 billion annually in lost sales, productivity, and branding.
We want to be the writers whose sentences people read and understand. So how do we do that? Here are three ways to strengthen your sentences.
1. Keep it short.
Research indicates that the ideal average sentence length is 15 to 20 words. When the average sentence length is 14 words, readers understand 90 percent of their meaning. Comprehension drops as sentence length increases.
Particularly now, when so many people read on a tablet or phone, sentences must be glance-able. As you write, ask yourself if your reader could grasp your sentence while racing down a hallway on their way to an important meeting.
So keep that average low. You can measure your average sentence length with MS Word's Check Readability Statistics tool. Note that you can vary your sentence length as long as the average stays low. That means you may write a 25- or 30-word sentence. However, your average will remain within range if you sandwich that long sentence between a couple of 10- to 12-word examples.
Even if you keep all your sentences short, your writing will become tedious if every sentence uses the same pattern. That's why it is essential to vary the length and structure of your sentences. Grammarly Premium will catch you if you write a series of monotonous sentences.
2. Omit needless words: Cut! Cut! Cut!
As E. B. White and William Strunk Jr. wrote in their classic text, The Elements of Style, "Make every word tell." That means each word in a sentence should be there for a reason. If a word is not contributing to your message, throw it overboard.
Sentences sometimes become obese by including unnecessary nouns. Needless nouns creep into our sentences as words that could be used as nouns or verbs. This group includes words like thought, use, work, love, request, and others. Notice the difference between
- "I will give it some thought" and "I will think about it."
- "Work will start soon" and "We will start working soon."
- "As per your request" and "As you requested"
Ponderous phrases burden sentences. Instead of weighty nouns, you can choose active verbs. For example, compare:
- "We will perform an analysis" and "We will analyze."
- "We give our approval" and "We approve."
- "We will take it under consideration" and "We will consider it."
Hedge words and fillers also add padding. Words like just, actually, basically, practically, most, and others consume space without contributing meaning.
Follow Mark Twain's advice: "When in doubt, strike it out."
3. Prefer the active voice.
You can improve the brevity and clarity of your message by writing in an active voice. Don't write, "The mortgage papers were prepared by John." Instead, write, "John prepared the mortgage papers." This puts the focus squarely where it belongs: on the one who performed the action. In fact, a recent Harvard Business Review article cites brain research indicating that the brain processes sentences in the active voice more quickly than in the passive voice.
In contrast to the briskness of the active voice, the passive voice leads to convoluted, backward-sounding sentences. Scrutinize your work for words like has been, being, and have. These might be signs that you've slipped into the passive voice.
Not only that, using the passive voice automatically lengthens your sentences. For example:
- Passive: "Consideration will be given to your idea." Active: "We will consider your idea."
- Passive: "Our products are manufactured in the U.S." Active: "We manufacture our products in the U.S."
- Passive: "An email was written to the customer." Active: "We emailed the customer."
Now, using the passive voice is not evil; sometimes, it is your best option. However, the passive voice creates blur, evasion, and distance. So if you want to be crisp and direct, avoid it.
Good writing entails many factors. You must think before you write and consider your reader's needs and interests. But in the end, you have to write coherent sentences. Applying these three tips will help your sentences soar.