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Focus on Each Sentence

Upgrade the Quality of Your Writing, Focus on Each Sentence
We all want to write messages that are clear, concise and sophisticated, but that’s easier said than done. How do you go about improving your business writing? Do you take the broad view and work on paragraphs? Do you focus narrowly on the specific words you use? If you want to send a well-written message, the answers lies somewhere in between: Focus on the sentences--and make sure that each one says precisely what you mean. If each sentence stands on its own, you’ll create a document that is easy-to-grasp and unambiguous.  

Here’s a quick test of your success: When you’re done, read the message out loud. If your tongue trips or you run out of breath, something is wrong—not with you but with your sentences. If they don’t read well, they’re not constructed well. And the chances are that the problem stems from one or more of these bad habits:  

Writing in the passive voice:
Sentences are active when the subject performs the action rather than receives it: For example: My manager gave me a raise. Here the subject is manager. Readers prefer the active voice most of the time because it is direct, conversational and less wordy.  Sentences are in the passive voice when the subject receives the action: A raise was given to me by my manager. While conveying the same information, this sentence is longer, clumsier and harder to process. So take a cumbersome passive sentence and reverse the order, making the subject perform the action. That is how to produce the active voice.

Note: Sometimes the passive voice sounds right, especially in formal documents.

Using too many long nouns:
Often a message seems just plain heavy: Our intention is to take the external appearance of the building under consideration for preservation. Lighten up the weighty nouns by substituting verbs in their place—especially nouns with suffixes like -tion and  -ance: We intend to consider preserving the building’s external appearance. Action verbs are typically the strongest words in a sentence and help to make a sharper point.

Inserting phrases that interrupt sentence flow:
Avoid separating the subject from the verb with an interrupting phrase because the result is often choppy and confusing: We are, as might be expected at this late date, distressed about the change in plans  If the interrupting idea serves a helpful purpose in the sentence, put it at the beginning or at the end: As might be expected at this late date, we are distressed about the change in plans. Or: We are distressed about the change in plans as might be expected at this late date The sentence flows better and is easier to grasp.

Starting with empty words:

Start strong. Take advantage of your first words to pack a punch. Otherwise, you squander an opportunity to make an impression on your reader. Avoid words like It There, Hopefully or As you know.

Note how stilted this sentence sounds: It is the hope of the committee that the board will consider the recommendation. Give it a smooth, conversational tone: The committee hopes the board will consider the recommendation.  If you delay the subject by inserting empty words, you will quickly lose your reader’s attention.

Failing to keep parallel the items in a list or series:
If you want your message to attract attention, use lists. Readers love them because they are clear and easy to understand.  But when you do use lists, whether in a vertical line or as part of a sentence, be sure the items are presented in the same grammatical form. If the first item starts with a verb, then all other items should start with a verb; if the first item is a complete sentence, then all other items must be sentences as well. In the following sentence, the list of responsibilities is confusing because nouns and verbs are mixed:  Technicians must handle all issues related to the move such as a relocation of the copier, coordinate installation of power lines, positioning of new hardware, and a contract for cable access.. Simply turn each item into a verb, and streamline the rest of the text: In handling the move, technicians must relocate the copier, coordinate installation of power lines, position the new hardware, and contract for cable access.

Note: Even though readers welcome lists, keep them short and make sure all the items belong.

As with other skills, people tend to improve with practice.
If you’re determined to upgrade your writing skills, make a conscious effort to apply these five principles of strong sentences:

  • Use the active voice.
  • Choose action verbs.
  • Keep subject and verb close together.
  • Start strong.
  • Construct lists in parallel form.

You’ll soon be aware that you have upgraded the quality of your writing.  Your messages will be smooth, logical and precise—and clearly understandable to every reader. That’s what business communication is all about.


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Unless otherwise attributed, all material is written and edited by Susan B. Kline. Copyright © Susan B. Kline 2011. All Rights Reserved. I invite you to reprint material from this website for educational purposes, provided this copyright notice ("Written and edited by Susan B. Kline, © Susan B. Kline [year]. All Rights Reserved.") and a link to sbkline.com is included in the credits.


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