Page maintained by Norman Fenton. Last updated: 13 July 2000
Other General tips
The English school system produces students who feel ashamed to write short sentences. In my view this is a great failing of our education system. There is nothing clever about writing long, complex sentences. For technical writing it is simply WRONG. You must get used to the idea of writing sentences that are reasonably short and simple. In many cases shorter sentences can be achieved by adhering to the following principles:
1. A sentence should contain a single unit of information. Therefore, avoid compound sentences wherever possible - be on the lookout for words like AND, OR, WHILE which are often used unnecessarily to build a compound sentence.
2. Check your sentences for faulty construction. Incorrect use of commas is a common cause of poorly constructed and excessively long sentences.
3. Use parentheses sparingly. Most uses are due to sheer laziness and can be avoided by breaking up the sentence. NEVER use nested parentheses under any circumstances if you want to retain your reader.
Learning about some of the principles described below, such as using active rather than passive constructs, will go some way toward helping you shorten your sentences.
A paragraph should contain a single coherent idea. It is easier to read a text where paragraphs are not excessively long. You should try always to keep them to less than half a page. On the other hand, successive paragraphs that are very short may also be very difficult to read. Such an approach is often the result of poorly structured thinking. If you need to write a sequence of sentences that each express a different idea then it is usually best to use itemized or bulleted lists to do so. The fact that the sentences need to be written in sequence suggests that there is something that relates them. The idea that relates them should be used to introduce the list. As an example, look at the numbered list above.
You should read this section carefully - there are words in here that I would actually penalise you for using.
The golden rule on words to avoid is:
For example, you should never use the following words because there is a simpler alternative (given in brackets).
Also unless you are talking about building maintenance, never use the verb render as in:
The 'correct' version of the above sentence is:
In other words, if you mean 'make' then just write 'make' not 'render'.
Here are some other examples of commonly used words that have much simpler (and better) alternatives:
In general you should only ever use the 'bad' words here if some special context means it is really necessary to do so.
In many cases there is no simple rule for transforming a sentence with unnecessarily long words, but the following examples should give you some idea of the improvements that can be made.
Many sentences contain unnecessary words that repeat an idea already expressed in another word. This wastes space and blunts the message. In many cases unnecessary words are caused by abstract words like nature, position, character, condition, situation as the following examples show:
In general, you should therefore use such abstract words sparingly, if at all.
Often writers use several words for ideas that can be expressed in one. This leads to unnecessarily complex sentences and genuine redundancy as the following examples show:
Another common cause of redundant words is when people use so-called modifying words. These often turn out to be meaningless. For example:
Similarly, the following words can be fine when used with a concrete reference, but in many case they are not:
One of the worst, but most common, examples of poor writing style is where authors turn verbs into nouns or use abstract nouns rather than active verbs. The following examples show the major improvements you can achieve by getting rid of nasty noun constructions:
The last example is a particular favourite of mine (the bad version appeared in a published paper) since it manages to breach just about every principle of good writing style. It uses a noun construct instead of a verb and it includes one of the forbidden words (facilitated). However, one of the worst features of this sentence is that it says "It was reported by Jones" instead of simply "Jones reported". This is a classic example of use of passive rather active constructs. We deal with this in the next section.
Consider the following two sentences:
Both sentences provide identical information. The first is said to be in the active style and the second is said to be passive style. In certain situations it can make sense to use the less natural passive style. For example, if you really want to stress that a thing was acted on, then it is reasonable to use the passive style. However, many scientists routinely use the passive style simply because they believe it is more 'formal' and 'acceptable'. It is not. Using the passive style is the most common reason for poorly structured sentences and it always leads to longer sentences than are necessary. Unless you have a very good reason for the change in emphasis, you should always write in the active style.
The following examples show the improvements of switching from passive to active:
Whether to use personal (first person) or impersonal (third person) style is a subject that causes fierce debate. Some writers insist that a report is not truly scientific if it is written in the first person style. There is no rational justification for such an assertion. Moreover, there are now very few scientific journals that still insist on third person writing. The most important justification for using first person style is that it is more natural and results in simpler sentences. Poor sentence structure, notably using passive rather than active style, is most commonly caused when authors are forced to write in the third person. Consider the following examples:
In many situations avoiding the first person can also introduce ambiguity. For example, consider the statement
It is not clear whether the writer is referring to his/her own experiments, other researchers' experiments, or a combination of the two.
Even worse than ambiguity is where use of third person rather than first introduces genuine uncertainty. For example, consider the following:
This leaves serious doubts in readers' minds. It might mean that the authors do not know how the drug works, but it might also mean that the operation of the drug is impossible.
One final word about personal versus impersonal writing. Many authors, who are reluctant to use first person but realise that they cannot write a sentence naturally without it, opt to use the expression 'one' as in "One can conclude from the experiment ...". I have some simple advice about this: DON'T. It sounds pompous and ridiculous. If you feel uneasy about saying "I" then say "We".