Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Writing Tips: don’t overload your sentences

Writing is less about putting words on a page or screen than it is about putting thoughts in order.

Our job as writers, as professional communicators, is to clarify the world and ideas for our audience. That means illuminating—showing something that was hidden before—and simplifying—sorting out ideas, phenomena and events that are tangled and difficult to understand.

Consider these tangled ideas. By the way, I invented none of the examples I’m about to show you. They’re all taken from published documents or from former students. In either case, the writers should never have let anyone else see them.
  • We were informed of your government’s new initiative to link young people about to graduate from post-secondary education with small businesses who need skilled employment candidates by a teacher from Saskatchewan who is a member of our team of educators that is championing the inclusion of health literacy into high-school curricula.
How many ideas are crammed into that one sentence? Yes, it’s grammatically correct, but it has 5 dependent clauses, 9 prepositional phrases and 51 words. No, I’m not going to give an eighth-grade lesson in grammar or parsing sentences. I’m saying that’s too much for any audience. There are at least 14 different, if linked ideas in it.

In Grade 1, you learned (at least, you were taught; whether you learned it is a topic for another blog): a sentence is a single complete thought. While it makes sense to link thoughts together, when you get a chain long enough to wrap around your winter tires, it’s too long.

How about this one:

  • As he suggests, “the binary logic” of many sociological texts encourages an Eurocentric analysis that conceptually constructs an ahistorical, apolitical social science which avoids an analysis of the political and economic exploitation that is associated with racial and ethnic prejudice and discrimination.
That one starts with “binary logic,” goes through sociology, history, politics and social science, some other ideas and ends up with discrimination. It’s like wandering in a college campus and wondering how you got to the garbage room when you started in the computer lab and were hoping to get to the caf.

I call these “overloaded sentences”—they just cannot support that much information. By the time the readers get to the end of a sentence like that, they’ve forgotten the beginning.

Here’s one from fiction:
  • Had he known that Ralph had managed to break into the apartment and wire it quickly before he had followed the three of them to the video store, Andy might have given a small bit of thought to the intelligence of listing a good many words that clearly indicated his belief that his pursuers were idiots, but he didn’t, much to the displeasure of his unseen audience. 

Organizational problem
Sentence overload is caused when you have so much to say and you try to get it all out at once. The solution: get a GRIP on your sentences as well as your whole document:
  • Goal: what are you trying to accomplish with these thoughts? What do you want your readers to do after reading? 
  • Reader: whom are you saying it to? What do they already know, what do you want them to know?
  • Idea: of all the ideas in that long, convoluted sentence, which is the most important?
  • Plan: what other information does the audience need to understand your main point? How is this other information related to the main point?

Now, organize it. Put the most important idea first. If two ideas are equally important, make each one the main part of a separate sentence. Then use less important ideas as dependent clauses or qualifying phrases.

You don’t always have to repeat qualifying information:
  • Notably, policymakers in India have made financial inclusion a priority, according to speaker LD Patel, Deputy director of the XXX of India, where all Indian institutions have been requested by the central regulatory department of India to formulate board approved educational inclusion plans for the next three years.

    The Indian government has asked all Indian institutions to develop plans to bring education to the poorest communities within three years, said LD Patel, Deputy Director of the XXX.
Sometimes, it seems as if the writer changed his or her mind halfway through the sentence:

  • It highlights the growing importance and recognition of healthy nutrition continues to gain in Canada and internationally with the availability of more resources, information and good practices to help develop strategic priorities, research, evaluation and programs.

    The importance of healthy nutrition is gaining recognition internationally. There are more resources, information and good practices available to help develop strategic priorities, research, evaluation and programs.
  • Based on last year’s results, and since the target audience is very well-defined and the product was developed for, and extensively tested with that audience, we expect the following results in 2010/11:

    The product was developed for a specific audience and tested with it. Based on those results, we can expect the following in 2010-2011:

From fiction:

  • Tristan blinked, his head moving up, not realizing he was so tired, normally he was more than energized and almost always ready to go.

    This actually combines several problems common in fiction from new writers: more detail than the reader needs or wants, and telling instead of showing. I would amend it to:

    Tristan’s head nodded involuntarily. “What’s up, Tristan?” Annabella asked. “You’re usually ready to go.”


Here are a couple that I received from students. My challenge to you is to turn these into readable prose. Leave your responses in the Comments box, below.

Have fun!

1: Management is pleased to be receiving a positive response from employees about the relocation of headquarters from Toronto to Calgary, although there are some concerns about the merger due to the cultural differences between the Calgary employees versus those from Toronto, so in response to growing concerns, management is taking action in order to ensure co-operation and compatibility between teams.

2. I recently completed a kitchen remodel and on July 2 I ordered by telephone double-glazed, oak French doors from Quality Doors, Inc, that were required for this job, which when they arrived on July 25, my carpenter told me were cut too small, measuring total of 2.31 square metres wide instead of 2.33 square metres wide, so my carpenter offered rebuild the opening but charging me for his time $455.50 because I waited three weeks for these doors, and my clients wanted them installed immediately.


  1. Great advice, as always, Scott! Love that pic!!

  2. Excellent advice, Scott. Keep it simple, keep it clean—if you want your stuff to actually be read. Frankly I couldn't even get through your examples.:)

  3. Nice post, I'm like Elise, I cringed when I read some of the examples. It's a great reminder as I finish up my next Reed Ferguson mystery...

  4. Anonymous1:05 PM

    Great infoormation and tips Scott! Thanks for the advice....... This was a great post and I love the picture......

  5. Yes, it was difficult to get through. I agree with keeping it clean and simple. Although I enjoy a challenge, it was a bit much.

  6. As a new writer, I am LOVING these blogs for examples and insight.
    And yea, half those sentences, I was either skipping over them or forgetting the initial point of the sentence all together.
    Great advice! Looking forward to reading more!

  7. Scott, I have to smile at one of those 'fictitious' examples.

    1. I'm glad you appreciated it, Sarah. Nice to see your mouse again.

  8. Love the examples. This is something that I have been struggling with in my current novel.

  9. Very precise article with live examples.. loved it, many thanks for sharing !!

  10. Anonymous5:32 AM

    Excellent! I could barely read through the examples. Too much information. I found this post to be helpful and I will keep it in mind as I write. Thank you!

  11. I shared yoor excellent post with my daughter who is in the midst of writing a review paper for her health science course. I lke the GRIP !