How to break free from long sentences

by Simon Grover on

Writing good copy is more craft than art. Here’s a brilliant technique that’s really easy to use.

Business writing is less about waiting for inspiration to strike and more about skilfully using a set of tools, or techniques. There’s one technique that’s my favourite – one that always makes people smile in our workshops as soon as they start using it. We call it One Thought One Sentence.

We didn’t invent this idea. Most ‘good writing’ guides talk about something similar. Bloomberg’s stylebook is an extreme example – it bans ‘but’, ‘despite’ and ‘however’ as words that force readers “to deal with conflicting ideas in the same sentence”.

When there are lots of ideas in one sentence, it’s hard to take everything in. It’s especially hard when the ideas are quite complicated. With a long sentence, you’re asking your reader to keep lots of thoughts in their head at once. By the time they get to the end of the sentence, they’re likely to have lost the thread. Full stops give the reader space to pause, to take in what you’ve just told them.

A tool, not a rule

But One Thought One Sentence is more useful than a simple instruction to ‘write short sentences’. Trying to write all short sentences from scratch is hard, and if you succeed it can give your writing a repetitive, jarring rhythm.

One Thought One Sentence is about tackling copy that’s got out of hand. As the name suggests, it involves breaking up your sentence into separate thoughts. You start by simply marking with a pencil each time you introduce a new idea, phrase or clause.

Once you’ve done that, you can improve the copy in a host of ways:

  • Identify thoughts that you don’t need, and cut them
  • Look at whether your thoughts are in a logical order
  • Keep some very short sentences, to add clarity and impact
  • Create some longer sentences, to add interest and rhythm

Get better rhythm

Here’s a typical sentence that packs in more than one thought:

We are passionate about our people and we know that you are the future of our business which is why we do everything we can to help you to develop both personally and professionally throughout your time here.

By breaking it up, we could instead say this:

We are passionate about our people. We know that you’re the future of our business. That’s why we do everything we can to help you to develop both personally and professionally throughout your time here.

Immediately, the thoughts have more impact. The three sentences are progressively very short, short and medium length, giving a much more pleasing rhythm.

Create space to breathe

Here’s a very long sentence from a pension scheme’s letter to members:

Members who were in employment with the Company on 1 April 2012 will receive two payments when they start to receive their pension – one from [scheme a] in respect of pension accrued up to the end of the cut-off date and the other from [scheme b] in respect of pension accrued after the cut-off date (as well as some increases applicable to benefits earned before the cut-off date).

If you can’t get through a sentence in one breath, it’s too long. There are many ways we could improve the words here. But just by breaking up the thoughts, we can make it significantly easier to read:

Members who were in employment with the Company on 1 April 2012 will receive two payments when they start to receive their pension. One is from [scheme a] in respect of pension accrued up to the end of the cut-off date. The other is from [scheme b] in respect of pension accrued after the cut-off date. There are also some increases applicable to benefits earned before the cut-off date.

Find out what’s important

This single sentence ranges through several distinct ideas:

We are an established insurance Brokers arranging Commercial, Motor and Personal Insurances and as such all our clients are important to us and we are dedicated to providing an exceptional personal service and tailoring insurance products to their needs.

When you split up the thoughts, you get this:

We’re an established insurance Brokers. We arrange Commercial, Motor and Personal insurances for our clients. All our clients are important to us. We’re dedicated to providing them with an exceptional personal service and tailoring insurance products to their needs.

By being made to stand on their own two feet, some of the thoughts are now exposed as weaker than others. I’d argue that the first and third ones could be cut.

Order arguments logically

A convincing story presents ideas logically, each one flowing to the next. You can test your logic by seeing if it works to say ‘and because of that’ between each thought. In the following sentence, the second part doesn’t flow logically from the first. Rather, the second part is the cause of the first:

Any company with a defined benefit pension scheme needs robust corporate actuarial valuation advice to ensure a company’s views and interests are taken into account as the Scheme Actuary’s advice to the trustees can have major implications for the cash-flow, long term funding and financial reporting of the company.

The ‘story’ here starts with the idea that the Scheme Actuary’s advice can have major implications. And because of that, a company will need robust advice. But the sentence above makes the reader work unnecessarily hard by reversing this logic.

When you split up the thoughts, it’s a lot easier to see this problem, and to fix it by reordering. The result might look something like this:

For any company with a defined benefit scheme, the scheme actuary’s advice to the trustees can have major implications for cash-flow, long-term funding and financial reporting. To make sure a company’s views and interests are taken into account, it’s important that the company gets robust corporate actuarial valuation advice.

Try it for yourself

Have a go at chopping up some of the long sentences you come across. Find bits to cut. Get the rest into a logical order. Then stitch it back together and send it out to your grateful reader.