So, how can you put each sentence to work for you to get the results you need?
Sentences may be approached from at least two angles: structure, or function.
Structurally, we may designate sentences as active (someone doing something); passive (someone or something being done to); or descriptive (a sentence using some form of “to be” – e.g., is, was, will be, were, and so on – sometimes in combination with words like “seems,” or “feels.”)
If one of these three structures is not in place, if one of these three things is not happening in your sentence, it’s likely that your group of words is not a sentence.
While there is substantial research demonstrating that partial sentences, or “sentence fragments,” are a business writing tool which may, and probably will, communicate better when they are well done, writing a good, communicative sentence fragment is an art, and a skill it takes most writers some time to develop. It can be difficult to write good, strong, communicative sentence fragments consistently.
Having said that, my advice to you is not to use sentence fragments on the job, and certainly not in the academic world. Most likely the best you will get is a note in the margin saying, “this is not a sentence.” Which you already knew, but…. A sentence fragment, when well done, will not be noticed, and will most likely improve the reader’s understanding.
You might enjoy analyzing the advertisements in your favorite “expensive” magazine. Identify the types of sentences, as well as the sentence fragments in the ads you particularly like, or that you feel make the writer’s point well. I will bet that you will find mostly, if not all, active sentences and at least a sentence fragment or two. In most cases, the people who write these ads have been doing it for a long time. And in most cases they are very good, both at using active sentences and at using well-written sentence fragments. That’s why they get the big bucks!
To strengthen your sentences, try these techniques:
- The average sentence length for the average adult reader should be 14-17 words.
- Improve readability by varying the length of your words, sentences, and paragraphs.
This is a mechanical device to keep the reader’s eye reading comfortably. Too many short words, sentences, and paragraphs will bounce the eye – like riding on a rough road, or turbulence in an airplane. Too many long words, sentences, or paragraphs can put your reader to sleep – or at least make it more difficult to follow what you are saying. All average-length words, sentences, and paragraphs become boring.
- If you take nothing else from this blog, here is the biggest secret to writing stronger, more effective sentences beginning immediately – with your very next keystroke:
No, as I like to joke with participants in my workshops, “syntax” is not what you pay for beer or cigarettes. “Syntax” is moving the order of the words around in the sentence, and let’s expand this definition just a bit to include moving sentences around in the paragraph, and paragraphs in the entire piece. Syntax is perhaps the least discussed, almost invisible, yet arguably most powerful tool you have in your business writing toolbox!
Take this sentence, for example:
I will need your completed time slip in my office not later than 5 p.m. on the last Friday of each month so you can continue to receive your paycheck on time.
Compare the above sentence to this one, where we have moved sentence elements around a bit:
So you can continue to receive your paycheck on time, I will need your completed time slip in my office not later than 5 p.m. on the last Friday of each month.
Do you see a difference? Which sentence is more powerful? More motivational? Which one captures your attention better – “hooks you” into reading more?
Business writing is a tool – a way to get the job done. Just like a rake, or shovel, or screwdriver. Your business writing needs to do its job.
Here’s what I’d like you to try this week: Take an important sentence in a piece you are writing on the job, and play with it a bit. Move the words and phrases around. See what you come up with to strengthen your writing.
Business writing has a job to do. But it can also be fun, and mentally stimulating. Experiment with your writing, within the boundaries of grammar and the style you use in your organization. Try new techniques, new tools. And let me know how it goes!
Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/318-7412, or email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.
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