Communication skills

Business writing: How to tidy up sentences

- May 9, 2009 2 MIN READ

Do you want to express yourself better in your business writing? Then tidy up your sentences. Looking closely at sentence length and structure will help make your words work for you.

Thinking about content and style at the same time is difficult, so concentrate on content in your first draft and tidy up your sentences in subsequent drafts. Once your ideas are clear, you can approach your words with a delete, delete, delete attitude and eliminate the clutter. Even concise writers attract clutter.

Reassess the length of your sentences

All writing experts agree we need to vary our sentence lengths, but not all agree how long the average sentence ‘should’ be. Some plain language experts think sentences should average 22 words, while other writers say length is an irrelevant criteria.

Sometimes a long sentence can work, as Mark Twain demonstrates:

At times he may indulge himself with a long one [sentence], but he will make sure there are no folds in it, no vaguenesses, no parenthetical interruptions of its view as a whole; when he has done with it, it won’t be a sea-serpent with half of its arches under the water; it will be a torch-light procession. (57 words)

Such talent is often best used in fiction rather than promotional and business writing, so let’s start tidying!

As counting words is tedious, an alternative is to reassess sentences longer than two lines. You can tidy them by:

  • deleting unnecessary words (of, by)
  • tightening phrases (with regard to becomes about)
  • bulleting some of the information
  • breaking a sentence into two sentences.

Want more articles like this? Check out the business writing section.

Look at the structure of your sentences

Shortening sentences won’t always work. Sometimes problems arise when your subject is too far away from its verb.

Take a look at this sentence:

Processing payments for purchases that have been approved outside of the organisational delegation, or processing payments for invoices when the goods and services have not been received, increases the risk that the organisation pays for goods and services that are not officially approved or pays prior to the receipt of the goods and services. (54 words)

A possible rewrite is:

The risk of unauthorised payments increases when payments are made outside organisational delegation or before receipt of the goods or services. (21 words)

In our business and promotional writing, we need to get to the point quickly. As Joseph Williams, Style: Towards Clarity and Grace, says: “If you begin a sentence well, the end will almost take care of itself.”

Using this rule, you can still use subordinate clauses at the beginning, providing they are short and the ‘who does what’ remains clear. For example:

Although the deadline had passed, she decided to accept the application.

Sentences that get to the point quickly have a ‘who does what’ structure, sometimes called SVC (subject, verb, completer). Such sentences are active (I made a mistake), not passive (A mistake was made). The passive voice has a place but many writers overuse it, mistakenly thinking it sounds more authoritative.

How do your sentences look?

When you’ve finished writing, assess the way your sentences look on the page.

Watch out for:

  • word stacks (same words falling on top of each other in consecutive lines)
  • consistent spacing between sentences—the modern style is for one space, not two
  • paragraphs that start with the same words (However, Therefore, The)
  • orphans and widows—stray lines on their own at the bottom or top of a page.

Remember the power of three: length, structure and good looks.

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  • Andrew Caska

    Caska IP Patent Attorneys

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