This morning, a colleague shared a 258-word sentence from a legal contract he had to read.
We recommend keeping sentences to an average length of 15–20 words, so this sentence was over 230 words too long! And in legal or official writing, readers are likely to struggle with any sentence even a tenth of that length.
Our message channel got very busy as people expressed their alarm at the word count. But that was just the start. People started pointing out how complex they found the sentence structure and language. The sentence was part of a contract, and contained a lot of information. The sentence:
We understand how long sentences happen. Writers often have a lot to cover, and may think that packing lots of information into a sentence is more efficient. Or, as they’re writing a sentence, they think of other relevant things to include. Your first drafts probably have a few sentences that are too long — which is why plain language principles are so important in the editing phase.
Some of you will read the dot points above and think the description sounds typical of writing in a contractual document. Contract or not, court cases have been lost over ambiguous language. And plenty of evidence exists to show that clear writing makes excellent business sense for all organisations.
The writer of that 258-word sentence was probably thinking less about their readers, and more about what they wanted to get across. But by making their text difficult, they risk their readers giving up and missing critical information.
We admit today’s example is an extreme case! But we see many examples of unclear writing every day in our training and consulting work.
Keeping to a readable sentence length is just one technique we teach our clients. You’ll discover many others that are equally useful, and each technique is another tool in your writing toolbox. Each time you apply a new technique, you’ll get closer to connecting quickly with your readers and achieving your objectives for writing.
Now more than ever, many of you are working from home rather than your regular workplace. So it’s not as easy to pop your head over the cubicle and ask for help with a tricky writing assignment. We can offer a helping hand.
Our new online bundle gives you a set of short, powerful writing tools to help you write compelling, well-structured documents. These tools will equip you to communicate with clarity and have influence in your organisation.
The Clear Communication Kit is useful for everyone who writes at work. Right now, you’ll value these resources if you are:
The kit includes six courses we’ve created based on our 25+ years of experience in business writing training. You can take each course at your own pace. You’ll discover techniques to help you plan, structure, write, edit, and polish any document you write — from emails through to long reports and presentations.
The six courses included in the bundle are: