ENGL 2105 : Workplace-Based Writing and Research

Home | Introduction | Standard Syllabus | Contribute

Sentence-Level Revision

"Thinking is seeing; ... writing is presenting what the author has seen so the reader can see it too." Clear and Simple as the Truth

Your goal as a business communicator, regardless of media, is to sound like a real person talking to real people. It's fine to wear makeup, rarely a mask.

To become a better a writer you need read for structure and style as well as content. Not just what but how and why.

The advice below is a systematic way to inspect your sentences for clarity. I suggest you spend about 50% of each writing session just inspecting sentences, elaborating on incomplete ideas when you notice them, and perhaps making notes for the next writing session.

Some Basic Sentence Revision Advice

  1. The primary pattern for an English sentence is subject (the actor), verb (action), object (thing acted on) in that order.
    Original:Moving chunks around, building some up, cutting some back, deleting others entirely is what good writers spend most of their time doing.
    Revised: Good writers spend most of their time moving chunks around, building some up, cutting some back, deleting others.
  2. The subject of every sentence should be concrete or at least specific.
    Can your readers see what you are talking about?
  3. The main action of a sentence should be a verb rather than a verb phrase.
    Consider eliminating infinitive verb forms (to win, to run); the verb to be; and any verb with an "ing" ending unless the action is ongoing.
    In general, revise all sentences where the main verb has been turned into a noun phrase (aka, nominalization).
  4. Use active voice to clarify who did what to whom
  5. Use passive voice to avoid responsibility, avoid attributing error or blame to someone else, or veil an unpleasant truth.
    Original:It is wrong to make accusations of implicit bias whenever tragedy occurs.

    Use passive voice when convention expects it.
  6. Place modifiers beside the noun they modify. ▼
  7. Eliminate redundant expressions.
  8. Eliminate verbose expressions.
  9. Eliminate business jargon.
  10. Eliminate vague words.
  11. Eliminate clichés.
  12. Use metaphors to bridge the known to the unknown.
  13. If a sentence starts with There are or This is or That is, consider opening with the subject itself.
  14. Delete that
  15. Don't use words you can't define.
    But do use words you can't spell; get a thesaurus and a dictionary (don't substitute one word for another without comparing meanings in a dictionary. Go for precise rather than fancy.
  16. Question words that have multiple meanings (love, patriot, burden, crazy).
    Ask yourself, "What kind of X is this X?" If the answer isn't obvious you need to say more. Even if it is obvious to you, it may not be to your readers.)
  17. Long sentences (10 + words) are ok, but don't separate the subject from the verb by a distance greater than a person can hold in working memory. If a reader gets near the end of a sentence and thinks, "Wait, what now?", you've got a problem.
  18. Shorter is generally better, especially on the screen, but consider your subject, your audience, and your goal.
  19. Delete meta-discourse ("As explained earlier", "In the next section").
    You are not talking to yourself. You are talking to someone else. Imagine you are driving and the GPS said, "After we turn left at the next light we will go 3 miles and then make a right and then half a mile later another left"? Information needs to arrive on time.
  20. In general, reduce the length of any document by 10 - 30% without deleting any ideas.
    "Revision = Draft - 10%." (Steven King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft).

Practice, practice, practice, and practice some more.