Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Better Writing Boot Camp -- Session 2: Crafting Paragraphs

In this session we turn our attention to paragraphs. They’re the building blocks writers use to present information. A paragraph is a grouping of sentences that relate to an idea, theory, or argument. (Of course, you can have single sentence paragraphs, but here we’re focusing on multi-sentence paragraphs.)

The key to clear paragraphs is making sure each sentence relates to the theme or thesis you’re writing about. If a sentence does not directly support the theme, it doesn’t belong in the paragraph.

To figure out if each sentence supports the theme, first identify the paragraph’s topic sentence. If none of your sentences set out your main thesis, you’ll need to craft one that does. Once you have a topic sentence, make sure each sentence clearly relates to it.

When you find a sentence that doesn’t directly support the topic sentence, remove it from the paragraph. If you take a sentence out of a paragraph that doesn’t mean you must delete it from the document. You may find the sentence includes an idea worthy of being the topic sentence of a new paragraph. Or perhaps the removed sentence supports some other paragraph. If so, move it there.

Though content drives paragraph length, paragraphs with many sentences require special attention. Besides making sure each sentence supports the paragraph’s thesis – ask yourself whether the order of the sentences makes sense. You can order the sentences in a variety of ways: chronologically, by cause/effect, by argument/counter-argument, and so on. When choosing the sentence order, be sure the ordering will make sense to the reader.

And finally, like long sentences, long paragraphs are difficult for readers. Paragraphs should present information in digestible chunks. Most long paragraphs can be easily broken into two paragraphs. Of course, you may have to craft a new topic sentence for the second paragraph. You can usually do this by simply paraphrasing the original topic sentence. Then review the two paragraphs, making sure the order of the sentences in each paragraph makes sense.

Invest the time in critically analyzing every paragraph you write. Your writing will be clearer and your readers will be grateful.

© 2019 Good with Words

Monday, February 04, 2019

Better Writing Boot Camp -- Session 1: Keeping Sentences Short

Have you ever taken a fitness boot camp? If so, you probably noticed that most of the activities are things you did in elementary school. (You probably also noticed those moves are a LOT harder on older knees than they were on 10-year-old knees!) By the end of boot camp you’re stronger because you’ve reconnected with muscles you hadn’t focused on for some time.

In coaching professionals interested in making their business-related writing better, I’ve noticed big payoffs come from focusing on a few basics. So, I’m launching a digital writing boot camp designed to help you whip your writing into better shape. The boot camp will be a series of short blog posts. Each post will cover one basic practice that will improve your writing – if you’re willing to really focus on it.

Ready? Ok, here goes …

Session 1: Keeping Sentences Short

An excellent first principle to focus on is keeping sentences short. Shorter sentences are easier for readers. Long sentences – even when grammatically flawless – require a lot from readers. Business writers seem to forget that readers don’t know the point you’re making until they finish reading the sentence. With long sentences, readers must hold a lot in their head before making sense of the idea you’re presenting.

Another problem with long sentences is that they’re more likely to be grammatically flawed. And, when you write a long sentence, you increase the chance of creating confusion and ambiguity.

How short? My rule of thumb is sentences should be under 25 words. I know, that seems like a lot of words – and it is. But, you’d be surprised at how many sentences in business documents are 30, 40, even 50 or more words long. Professionals often think that long sentences show off their expertise. Instead, it shows their laziness and lack of care about the reader.

So, any time your sentence spills beyond one line of type, take the time to check how many words it is. (It’s easy to check word counts in MS Word. All you do is highlight the sentence and in the lower left corner you’ll see the sentence’s word count.) It’s a bit time consuming to do for every sentence, but don’t skip this necessary step.

Any time you have a sentence that’s over 25 words – shorten it! Start by ruthlessly trimming unnecessary words. If that’s not enough, re-cast the sentence. Sometimes the easiest solution is to chop the sentence into two. Sure, you may have to repeat the subject of the sentence, but that’s a small price for clarity and ease of reading.   

I challenge you to diligently focus on writing shorter sentences for a month. Do it for your readers – and for yourself.

© 2019 Good with Words