Five tips for fewer words, more understanding

When writing about complex or technical issues , here are five quick tips for producing shorter, simpler sentences that almost guarantee reader understanding, according to research by the American Press Institute:

  1. Write short, declarative sentences in which someone or something performs a specific action on some person or object.  “The dog ate my homework.” “
  2. Avoid passive and linking constructions of the verb “to be.”
  3. Read your copy and circle every comma.  Commas often signal the presence of redundant or extraneous material or opportunities for breaking long sentences into multiple  shorter sentences.
  4. To shorten your copy, review it to circle every occurrence of the word “to.”  There you likely will quickly and easily find passive verb use or extraneous language that adds to sentence length and complexity.  (The benefit – a 29 percent reduction in word count as shown here:  “Shorten copy by reviewing it, then circling each ‘to.’  There you likely will find passive verbs or extraneous language that increases sentence length and complexity.”)
  5. Finally, a key cause of long, complex sentences is the authorial “by god, I spent time researching this and you’re going to learn it.”  Au contraire.  Writers serve readers.  Ask yourself what your readers need or want. Then give them that information and nothing more.  Appendices were created for the material you excise.

Bonus Tip: If all else fails, select “Readability Statistics” found under Tools/Options in the Microsoft Word toolbar.  It automatically calculates average sentence length, readability and other reader usability measures, providing you a simple learning opportunity.

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One response to “Five tips for fewer words, more understanding

  1. I just wanted to tell you, Michael, that this is a really, really good post, and one that I am going to take to heart the next time I wish to influence, or rather, to educate people to better understand exactly what it is that I am trying to say to them about the latest complex or technical issue I have the pleasure to encounter in a way that makes me wish to share it with others who may not have the advantage of extensive technical training or even higher education of the type that we professionals enjoy and, all too commonly, tend to take completely for granted, which is sad, really, when you think about it. Well done you!

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