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Lost in Long Sentences?

Written by Lynn Gaertner-Johnston, Syntax Training

When reading essays, books, and novels, many people enjoy traveling through long, complex sentences with twists and turns that lead to a satisfying end. But in business writing, readers want a short, clear path to understanding. Follow the four tips below to edit long sentences.

1. Include just one idea per sentence. When sentences have several ideas, readers need to figure out the relationship between the ideas. They need to suspend their understanding until they get to the period (full stop). In contrast, readers can quickly grasp each one-idea sentence and move on to the next.

The sentence below packs in three ideas. The punctuation makes is easy to recognize them.

I hope you will be able to attend, and if you need more information, please call or email me, and I will be glad to help you.
This revision shows that each idea can be a crisp sentence: I hope you will be able to attend. If you need more information, please call or email me. I will be glad to help you.

Test Yourself Number 1: Revise this three-idea sentence, whose length makes readers move slowly:

Our credit department has requested that you provide a copy of your exempt sales tax document and that you fill out the top and signature portion of the credit application just for assurance that we have the pertinent contact information correct.
Revise the sentence to communicate just one idea per sentence. After you have tried, you can check my revision. It appears at the end of this article.
2. Begin with the subject, not the windup. 
In baseball, the windup is the pitcher’s actions before releasing the ball. Although important to the pitcher, the windup can distract the batter. The same is true of readers: If you begin a sentence with a fancy windup, you may lose your readers before releasing your main idea. Instead, start with your subject.This sentence has a dizzying windup, which makes it too long and complicated:

With over a decade of experience with programming, network security, reverse engineering, cryptography design and cryptanalysis, and attacking protocols, and significant expertise in information security, Lance James provides consultation to businesses ranging from small startups to governments, Fortune 500s, and top financial institutions.
If the sentence began with the subject, Lance James, rather than the long windup, it would be two clearer sentences:
Lance James has over a decade of experience with programming, network security, reverse engineering, cryptography design and cryptanalysis, and attacking protocols, and significant expertise in information security. He provides consultation to businesses ranging from small startups to governments, Fortune 500s, and top financial institutions.
Test Yourself Number 2: Start with the subject rather than the long windup in this sentence, so readers do not struggle to understand its meaning:
By keeping the three critical success factors in mind and talking with your unit manager or your peer coach whenever you find yourself struggling with an employee issue, you should have the greatest opportunity for success as a new supervisor.

My revision appears at the end of the article.

3. When a sentence is too long or has more than one idea, try inserting a period (full stop) in place of the word andSometimes your sentences will ramble on because you have forgotten to take a breath and give your reader one. Replacing and with a period may help, as it would in this sentence:
Thanks for your cooperation on this project and we look forward to meeting with you to discuss the items above.
This revision communicates in two powerful sentences: Thanks for your cooperation. We look forward to meeting with you to discuss the items above.Sometimes replacing and with a period requires the addition of a word. In the sentence below, which word would you use to replace and? 

The navigation panel on the left side of the screen is the same for all contractors and helps them navigate through the site to find what they need quickly.

Your revision might look like mine: The navigation panel on the left side of the screen is the same for all contractors. It helps them navigate through the site to find what they need quickly.

Test Yourself Number 3: Break up this long sentence by inserting a period and replacing and. Then compare your revision with mine, which appears at the end of the article.

Recently there have been several calls and emails from individuals who are using an MS Excel version dated earlier than 2007 and are not able to save their changes based on the instructions provided in the guidelines.

4. Do not let a long list transform your sentence into a solid wall of text. Often you need to include a list in your writing. But a sentence burdened with a long list can become a blur to your reader. If that happens, your reader will not see any of the important information in your list. The solution is to break up the long, heavy sentence into bullet points or short sentences that keep your reader’s attention.

How would you revise this list-heavy sentence?

Your daily work will include counseling managers on issues ranging from major incidents to employee communications and community relations, representing the company with various groups, supporting the needs of individual plants, managing strategic media opportunities and crisis communications, placing community advertising, and publicizing company efforts in environmental stewardship.
This revision helps each point stand out for the reader:
Your daily work will include:
  • Counseling managers on issues ranging from major incidents to employee communications and community relations.
  • Representing the company with various groups.
  • Supporting the needs of individual plants.
  • Managing strategic media opportunities and crisis communications.
  • Placing community advertising.
  • Publicizing company efforts in environmental stewardship.
Test Yourself Number 4: Restructure this long sentence so that each part stands out:
If new information concerning the case should come to your attention, if you should leave the area for more than a few days, or if you should change your address or telephone number, please advise Marie Smith or your insurance agent immediately.
How long is too long? Sometimes long sentences are not difficult to understand. But a document filled with long, complex sentences will slow down readers and could lose them. Strive for an average of no more than 20 words per sentence–15 is better. Also, do not allow yourself to include sentences of more than 35 words in your final draft. If a sentence gets that long, break it in two (or three) or cut words.
Solution to Number 1:
Our credit department has requested that you provide a copy of your exempt sales tax document. Also, please fill out the top and signature portion of the credit application. This step is just for assurance that we have the pertinent contact information correct.
Solution to Number 2:  
You should have the greatest opportunity for success as a new supervisor if you do these two things: Keep the three critical success factors in mind. Talk with your unit manager or your peer coach whenever you find yourself struggling with an employee issue.
Solution to Number 3:
Recently there have been several calls and emails from individuals who are using an MS Excel version dated earlier than 2007. They are not able to save their changes based on the instructions provided in the guidelines.
Solution to Number 4: 
Please immediately advise Marie Smith or your insurance agent if any of these occurs:
  • New information concerning the case comes to your attention.

  • You leave the area for more than a few days.

  • You change your address or telephone number.

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How to say “No”

If you are like many people, you find it difficult to say no, especially when you need to commit words to paper or the screen. Some people find the task so challenging that they avoid responding. In a survey I conducted of 686 people (many were readers of this newsletter), I found that 22 percent occasionally avoid responding; 3 percent frequently avoid responding rather than say no.

Read More…

Better Writing at Work: Write Mighty Thank-Yous

In a survey on business writing and relationships, 81 percent of respondents said that a thank-you note they received had a definite positive influence on their decision to do business with a company or an individual again. 

Beyond the professional rewards of thank-yous, sending thank-yous makes everyone smile: you, the writer, for having expressed your gratitude, and the recipient for being remembered and appreciated. 

Here are reminders to help you write mighty thank-yous that bring smiles to all: 

1. Recognize opportunities to say thank you. You have a chance to say thank you anytime someone has:

  • Delivered particularly good service.
  • Gone beyond the job requirements for you.

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The 7 Cs of Communication

A Checklist for Clear Communication

Think of how often you communicate with people during your day. You write emails, facilitate meetings, participate in conference calls, create reports, devise presentations, debate with your colleagues… the list goes on.

We can spend almost our entire day communicating. So, how can we provide a huge boost to our productivity? We can make sure that we communicate in the clearest, most effective way possible.

This is why the 7 Cs of Communication are helpful. The 7 Cs provide a checklist for making sure that your meetings, emails, conference calls, reports, and presentations are well constructed and clear – so your audience gets your message.

According to the 7 Cs, communication needs to be:

  • Clear.
  • Concise.
  • Concrete.
  • Correct.
  • Coherent.
  • Complete.
  • Courteous.

In this article, we look at each of the 7 Cs of Communication, and we’ll illustrate each element with both good and bad examples.

1. Clear

When writing or speaking to someone, be clear about your goal or message. What is your purpose in communicating with this person? If you’re not sure, then your audience won’t be sure either.

To be clear, try to minimize the number of ideas in each sentence. Make sure that it’s easy for your reader to understand your meaning. People shouldn’t have to “read between the lines” and make assumptions on their own to understand what you’re trying to say.

Bad Example

Hi John,

I wanted to write you a quick note about Daniel, who’s working in your department. He’s a great asset, and I’d like to talk to you more about him when you have time.

Best,

Skip

What is this email about? Well, we’re not sure. First, if there are multiple Daniels in John’s department, John won’t know who Skip is talking about.

Next, what is Daniel doing, specifically, that’s so great? We don’t know that either. It’s so vague that John will definitely have to write back for more information.

Last, what is the purpose of this email? Does Skip simply want to have an idle chat about Daniel, or is there some more specific goal here? There’s no sense of purpose to this message, so it’s a bit confusing.

Good Example

Let’s see how we could change this email to make it clear.

Hi John,

I wanted to write you a quick note about Daniel Kedar, who’s working in your department. In recent weeks, he’s helped the IT department through several pressing deadlines on his own time.

We’ve got a tough upgrade project due to run over the next three months, and his knowledge and skills would prove invaluable. Could we please have his help with this work?

I’d appreciate speaking with you about this. When is it best to call you to discuss this further?

Best wishes,

Skip

This second message is much clearer, because the reader has the information he needs to take action.

 

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10 Places to Ignore Your Grammar and Spelling Checker

Written by Lynn Gaertner-Johnston, Syntax Training

Because grammar and spelling checkers are software programs, they can’t read your mind or know your intentions. They also frequently cannot distinguish between correct and incorrect sentence structures and the use of words that sometimes confuse us humans. Below are 10 places in which your software may be suggesting errors rather than correcting them.

 
1. When you use your reader’s name in a sentence. Grammar and spelling checkers may not recognize whether you are talking to or about the person. These sentences are correct, but my grammar and spelling checker flagged them anyway.
Eric, thanks for writing this article. [The comma after Eric’s name is correct because we are addressing him directly.]
Dave, in the employee version, add an example here. [My checker suggested changing add to adds–wrong!]
Lynn, may we have permission to print your material? [It suggested that I capitalize may as a month, which is incorrect, of course!]
2. When you begin a sentence with an introductory clause. Your grammar and spelling checker does not recognize where you intend the clause to end. In the first indented sentence below, for example, it may suggest a comma after write, Mark, or program. Just remember to use a comma before the main part of the sentence, as the sentences below do. They are punctuated correctly, although my grammar and spelling checker suggested additional commas.
When you write to Mark about the program in Kansas City, be sure he understands that it is in Missouri.
         If they do give you a copy of the receipt, keep it for your records.

If you want to help employees improve their writing, use this guide.

3. When your software suggests changing a verb from singular to plural or vice versa (by adding s, removing s, or changing from is to are, for example). Your grammar and spelling checker may frequently suggest new errors in subject-verb agreement. The three sentences below are correct, but my grammar and spelling checker suggested changing them.
Any files beginning with 000 need to be moved to the C drive. [Need is correct–not needs.]
Thank you for letting us know about your shopping experience. [Know is correct–not knows!]

The average number of words per sentence is 15 to 20. [The verb is is correct; are would be wrong.]

Read More…

Please write intelligible e-mails

Sometimes I get quite fierce headaches form e-mails that you get lost into.

Please:

  • for the sake of your addressee,
  • for the sake of time,
  • for the sake of brevity,
  • for the sake of understanding and
  • last but not least for the sake of yourself,

choose your words with care and thought. Let people know what you request them to give you or do. Have a point. Write with authority.

Here are some examples how to do it:

E-mail examples

 

Yours sincerely,

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