When I’m editing (either corporate technical and marketing materials or student papers at BCIT), I pay particular attention to sentence construction. Technical and business writing is prone to awkward sentence construction, because the material is so complex; and, marketing writing only compounds the problem, because the writer feels compelled to decorate the writing with as many superlatives as possible.
Here are five tips I use to keep my writing clear:
1. Avoid nominalization. Most people are familiar with it even if they don’t know what it’s called. Nominalized writing it the use of verbs as nouns (there’s an example right there). It’s most common in bureaucratic writing, and I believe, originates from a writer’s attempt to gain ground on the target audience—it talks down to its readers.
Here’s an example:
Improve driver safety by notification of emergency through panic button depression.
You can see that nominalization also results in a lot of passive voice. By returning the nominalized verbs into true verbs, your sentence instantly has more life:
To improve driver safety, notify emergency by pressing the panic button.
2. Keep the subject and its corresponding verb as close to each other as possible.
Here’s an example:
“This concept demonstrates how simple data related to, for example, salt dispensed on the public highways during the winter months when combined and processed with external data like geo-spatial, traffic fatality, and weather data can be turned into useful information.”
“This concept demonstrates how simple data can be turned into useful information (for example, data from salt dispensed on the public highways during the winter months becomes useful information when combined and processed with external data such as geo-spatial, traffic fatality, and weather data).”
3. Move parenthetic content away from the core of the sentence. In the example above, I’ve moved the parenthetic material away from the structural core of the sentence, but mirrored the point to reinforce the meaning. Parenthetic content is not always contained in parentheses (brackets). You can also use commas and even em dashes to indicate a parenthetic idea. I distinguish each as follows:
- Parentheses – an idea entirely outside the structural core of the sentence; a lesser point.
- Comma – a subordinate idea, but closely related to the core of the sentence (i.e., the sentence would be lessened without it).
- Em dash – a non related point that has a slightly exclamatory quality to it. It’s unrelated to the core meaning, but it’s an important aside—I use them a lot in web writing!
4. Check your logic. The most common logic error in grammar has a name: it’s called the dangling modifier. It occurs in sentences in which the doer is unclear (either because the sentence carries two or more doers or it’s omitted). It’s often the source of humour, as in the famous quote of Groucho Marx, “Last night, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How the elephant got into my pajamas, I’ll never know”.
Here’s an example taken from technical writing:
“The currently open table appears in the top-left corner of the window.”
“Open” in this case is not a verb; it’s an adjective. The intransitive verb “appears” is doing whatever action it can. “Currently” is a misplaced modifier. It should read, “The open table currently appears in the top-left corner of the window.”
5. Limit your use of adjectives and other superlatives. I call this “super fantastic writing”, because it’s used when “fantastic writing” just isn’t good enough. I recently edited a document that made the claim “…saving you more than millions of dollars in lost revenues”. As in point four above (Check your logic), it just doesn’t make any sense. Without an exact number, you can’t add a superlative (“more than”). As an editor, it’s sometimes difficult to persuade writers to release their white-knuckled hold on such writing—but it must be done. Decorating your writing with lots of adjectives, superlatives, and other do-dads doesn’t make it better or more persuasive.