Yesterday when I was presenting at a national insurance conference, we talked about this sentence, taken from a letter to customers:
Believing that a specialized approach and focus for recovering from uninsured individuals is most effective, we use a professional collection agency whose expertise has proven successful in the recovery process.
What is wrong with this long sentence and others like it?
Long sentences make readers work too hard. The one above makes readers slog through it to figure out what it is about. It's not about believing–or is it?
Not until the 16th word do we find the subject–we.
The sample sentence is 30 words, not terribly long. But its words and ideas are abstract rather than concrete: believing, approach, focus, recovering, effective, agency, proven, process. They paint no pictures. Compare this 30-word sentence:
Walking home from my office yesterday afternoon, I stumbled on a crumbling curb and fell to my knees, tearing my new silk pants and breaking the heel off my shoe.
When our sentences paint pictures with concrete words, our readers can follow 30 words easily. The problem is that much of our business content is abstract and complex. We can't see anything in it. So we have to help our readers, especially when they are not experts in our field.
This revision breaks the sentence in two:
We believe that a specialized approach and focus for recovering from uninsured individuals are most effective. That is why we use a professional collection agency whose expertise has proven successful in the recovery process.
No, it isn't a great passage. But the shorter sentences do make the message clearer.
Here is a two-sentence version with much simpler language:
We have found that collection experts do the best job of recovering money from uninsured individuals. That is why we use a professional collection agency.
Before I sign off, I am wondering whether you noticed that I changed the verb from is to are when I broke the original sentence in two. But I'll leave the topic of subject-verb agreement for another day!
P.S. I did not really stumble and tear my pants–in case you were feeling sorry for me!