Hello, everyone, and welcome to the first of what I hope will be numerous instalments of The Wednesday Writer. Just in case I get hit by a bus in the coming week, I want to go straight to the feature that affects comprehension more than any other.
Did you think “long sentences”? Bravo, you are correct, and you are invited to write the next instalment of these notes. Study after study has shown that reader comprehension falls off drastically as sentences get longer. An additional problem for the writer is that grammatical mistakes become easier to make. As you pile phrase upon phrase, clause upon clause, keeping your grammatical bearings can become a daunting task.
So how long should your sentences be? Richard Wydick in his Plain English for Lawyers suggests you limit most of your sentences to no more than 25 words. Warren Buffett, a long-time proponent of plain English, uses an average of 13.5 words in his sentences. Obviously sentence length will vary, which is no problem as the variation makes your writing more lively. But a mental “red light” should flash whenever you go beyond two lines of text. If you have a good reason to use a long sentence, go ahead, but be sure to be extra careful with your grammar.
How can you break up a long sentence? Most obviously you can use two or more sentences instead. Look for break points at coordinators like “and”, “or”, “so”, “however”, “but” or simply at a place where you are tempted to use a comma. For example, “The contract was drafted …blah blah blah … but to date the other side has blah blah blah”. Breaking this one is like falling off a log: “The contract was drafted …. But to date the other side has ….”
Where you have a list of items, use point form:
“The non-disclosure agreement will set out explicitly (a) what kinds of information should be treated as confidential; (b) what kinds of rights and obligations the two parties have under the non-disclosure agreement; (c) when the non-disclosure agreement terminates, what kinds of procedures the parties should use to return or destroy the confidential information; and (d) any other important aspects in relation to the scope of confidentiality.”
“The non-disclosure agreement will set out explicitly
- what information should be treated as confidential
- what rights and obligations the parties have
- when the agreement terminates
- what procedures the parties should use to return or destroy the confidential information, and
- any other important aspects relating to the scope of confidentiality.”
And in all cases look for words you can toss because they really don’t add meaning to your sentence. You may have noticed that I deleted several words in the example above. We’ll have a chance to explore this topic further in a later instalment.
That’s it for today. Feel free to share comments and questions. See you next time!
Bill Lawrence worked in US law firms and multinational companies until 2001. For the past 15 years Bill has been a writing coach at the Polytechnic University’s Centre for Business and Professional English. He has also presented seminars to law firms on coaching lawyers on effective writing.