Don’t Get Lost in Long Sentences!

When strangers write to me asking for help with their writing, the most common problem I see is long, complicated sentences. 

Example: Lynn, please help me with my writing because I need to improve so I can advance to a supervisor position, which I would like to do but my writing is not professional enough yet and it is holding me back. 

Long sentences are like labyrinths for readers. They challenge readers to use their wits to find their way to the end. 

Yes, when reading essays, books, and novels, many people enjoy traveling through long, complex sentences with twists and turns that lead to a satisfying end. But in business writing, readers want a short, clear path to understanding.

Follow the tips below to break up long sentences so your readers do not get lost–and you don't lose them. Then test your editing skills on four complicated sentences at the end of this post. 

1. Include just one idea per sentence. 
When sentences have several ideas, readers need to figure out the relationship between the ideas. They need to suspend their understanding until they get to the period (full stop). In contrast, readers can quickly grasp each one-idea sentence and move on to the next.

Although the punctuation makes it easy to recognize the three ideas, this sentence packs in too much:  

I hope you will be able to attend, and if you need more information, please call or email me, and I will be glad to help you.

This revision shows that each idea can be a crisp sentence:

I hope you will be able to attend. If you need more information, please call or email me. I will be glad to help you.

2. Begin with the subject, not the windup. 
In baseball, the windup is the pitcher's actions before releasing the ball. Although important to the pitcher, the windup can distract the batter. The same is true of readers: If you begin a sentence with a fancy windup, you may lose your readers before releasing your main idea. Instead, start with your subject.

This sentence has a dizzying windup, which makes it too long and complicated:

With over a decade of experience with programming, network security, reverse engineering, cryptography design and cryptanalysis, and attacking protocols, and significant expertise in information security, Lance James provides consultation to businesses ranging from small startups to governments, Fortune 500s, and top financial institutions. 

If the sentence began with the subject, Lance James, rather than the long windup, it would be two clearer sentences: 

Lance James has over a decade of experience with programming, network security, reverse engineering, cryptography design and cryptanalysis, and attacking protocols, and significant expertise in information security. He provides consultation to businesses ranging from small startups to governments, Fortune 500s, and top financial institutions.

3. When a sentence is long or has more than one idea, try replacing the word and with a period (full stop).
Sometimes your sentences will ramble on because you have forgotten to take a breath and give your reader one. Replacing and with a period may help, as it would in this sentence: 

Thanks for your cooperation on this project and we look forward to meeting with you to discuss the items above.

This revision communicates in two powerful sentences:

Thanks for your cooperation. We look forward to meeting with you to discuss the items above.

Sometimes replacing and with a period requires the addition of a word. In the sentence below, which word would you use to replace and?

The navigation panel on the left side of the screen is the same for all contractors and helps them navigate through the site to find what they need quickly.

Your revision might look like mine:

The navigation panel on the left side of the screen is the same for all contractors. It helps them navigate through the site to find what they need quickly.

4. Do not let a long list transform your sentence into a solid wall of text.
Often you need to include a list in your writing. But a sentence burdened with a long list can become a blur to your reader. If that happens, your reader will not see any of the important information in your list. The solution is to break up the long, heavy sentence into bullet points or short sentences that keep your reader's attention.

How would you revise this list-heavy sentence?

Your daily work will include counseling managers on issues ranging from major incidents to employee communications and community relations, representing the company with various groups, supporting the needs of individual plants, managing strategic media opportunities and crisis communications, placing community advertising, and publicizing company efforts in environmental stewardship.

This revision helps each point stand out for the reader:

Your daily work will include: 

  • Counseling managers on issues ranging from major incidents to employee communications and community relations.
  • Representing the company with various groups. 
  • Supporting the needs of individual plants.
  • Managing strategic media opportunities and crisis communications. 
  • Placing community advertising. 
  • Publicizing company efforts in environmental stewardship. 

Test Yourself

Follow the tips above to revise each of these complicated sentences. My answers appear at the end. No peeking until you try!

  1. Our credit department has requested that you provide a copy of your exempt sales tax document and that you fill out the top and signature portion of the credit application just for assurance that we have the pertinent contact information correct. 
  2. By keeping the three critical success factors in mind and talking with your unit manager or your peer coach whenever you find yourself struggling with an employee issue, you should have the greatest opportunity for success as a new supervisor.
  3. Recently there have been several calls and emails from individuals who are using an MS Excel version dated earlier than 2007 and are not able to save their changes based on the instructions provided in the guidelines.
  4. If new information concerning the case should come to your attention, if you should leave the area for more than a few days, or if you should change your address or telephone number, please advise Marie Smith or your insurance agent immediately. 

 

How long is too long? Sometimes long sentences are not difficult to understand. But a document filled with long, complex sentences will slow down readers and could lose them. Strive for an average of no more than 20 words per sentence–15 is better. Also, do not allow yourself to include sentences of more than 35 words in your final draft. If a sentence gets that long, break it in two (or three) or cut words. 

 

 

 

 

Solution 1:
Our credit department has requested that you provide a copy of your exempt sales tax document. Also, please fill out the top and signature portion of the credit application. This step is just for assurance that we have the pertinent contact information correct.

Solution 2:
You should have the greatest opportunity for success as a new supervisor if you do these two things: Keep the three critical success factors in mind. Talk with your unit manager or your peer coach whenever you find yourself struggling with an employee issue.

Solution 3:
Recently there have been several calls and emails from individuals who are using an MS Excel version dated earlier than 2007. They are not able to save their changes based on the instructions provided in the guidelines.

Solution 4:
Please immediately advise Marie Smith or your insurance agent if any of these occurs:

  • New information concerning the case comes to your attention.
  • You leave the area for more than a few days.
  • You change your address or telephone number.

 

Are you lost in a long sentence? Please share it in the comments, and we can try to untangle it together.

If you feel lost as a writer, take one of the five upcoming public classes I will teach online and in person from now through June. 

The article above appeared in slightly different form in this month's Better Writing at Work. Subscribe to my free e-newsletter. 

Lynn
Syntax Training

4 COMMENTS

  1. Lynn, great stuff. How about this idea? SELL the writer on short sentences in terms that resonate with him/her. Such as, “If you want to sell your proposal to top management make it a quick and easy read. Do it one ‘bit-size’ thought at a time. Don’t demonstrate your writing brilliance.”

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