3 writing mistakes you don’t know you’re making
Posted on 1 June 2015 by Lucy Gregory
1. Spinning long sentences
A few years ago, the American Press Institute conducted an experiment. They gave the same document to two groups of people with similar education, background, age, etc. For one group, the average sentence length in the document was 14 words. For the other group, it was 43 words. The documents were otherwise the same.
The results were amazing. The people reading the document with short sentences, understood about 90% of the content. The group with long sentences, only 10%.
Why does sentence length make such a difference?
For a start, most of us tend to skim read; we gloss over a sentence picking up the main point. That point is likely to be clearer in a shorter sentence.
Second, long sentences usually include a lot of information. Your reader might lose track half way through and need to read the sentence again or break it down into smaller chunks as they’re reading – all very time-consuming.
Finally, you’re much more likely to make a grammatical mistake in a long sentence. A mistake can distract your reader or, if it’s a real humdinger, obscure your meaning.
The ideal sentence length is 15–20 words. Some will be longer and others shorter, but this is a good average to aim for.
2. Stuffing your sentences with the padding
Padding is anything that bulks out your sentence but doesn’t add to your meaning. I like to group padding into three categories: (1) useless phrases, (2) longwinded phrases, and (3) duplication.
We’re so used to these phrases it doesn’t even occur to us they’re a waste of words:
It should be noted that…
This is to advise you that…
…being carried out…
I would like to take this opportunity to…
In view of the fact that…
In the process of…
May I draw your attention to
All of the following phrases can be replaced by simpler and more succinct equivalents:
In order to… ⇒ To
In the event that… ⇒ If
I would be grateful if you could… ⇒ Please
In accordance with… ⇒ Under, following
In respect of… ⇒ About, for
As a consequence of… ⇒ Because
At this point in time… ⇒ Now
In the course of… ⇒ During
We often write instinctively, choosing words because they’re familiar without thinking about what they mean. The phrases below are common in business writing, but you’ll notice the two words in each phrase mean the same thing.
3. Writing in the passive voice all the time
The passive voice says what has happened or is happening before it tells you who’s responsible. For example, ‘The blog was written by Lucy.’ Sometimes, the person responsible is left out altogether: ‘It is recommended further research is conducted.’
You might have been told to write in the passive voice at university because it’s ‘more formal and objective’. Forget it. It doesn’t apply in business writing. There are times when the passive voice is appropriate, but it’s best not to use it as your default.
The active voice is how most of us speak. You say who is acting before you say what they’re doing. For example, ‘Lucy wrote the blog,’ and ‘We recommend you conduct further research.’ The active voice is more direct and engaging than the passive. It’s also shorter, so your sentences will be more concise.