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Why writing short sentences may be short-changing your reader

Ubiquity, Volume 2017 Issue August, August 2017 | BY Philip Yaffe 


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Ubiquity

Volume 2017, Number August (2017), Pages 1-13

Communication Corner: Why writing short sentences may be short-changing your reader
Philip Yaffe
DOI: 10.1145/3130328

Each "Communication Corner" essay is self-contained; however, they build on each other. For best results, before reading this essay and doing the exercise, go to the first essay "How an Ugly Duckling Became a Swan," then read each succeeding essay.

Virtually every article on good writing includes the advice to keep sentences short. On a list of writing tips, this is often number one. However, the advice is meaningless, and even detrimental.

In the first place, "short" is a weasel word. It has no real meaning because what may be "short" in one case may be "long" in another.

Secondly, and more importantly, a series of short sentences often gives less information than a well-crafted longer one, because the short sentences don't show the links between the different elements. The key word here is "well-crafted." Long rambling sentences are confusing and tiresome. However, a well-crafted longer sentence flows like a stream. The reader is seldom aware of how long it is because everything in it is exactly where it ought to be. They simply absorb everything as if by osmosis, never really realizing how much information they are getting in such easy, palatable form.

Let's look at an example. The following was actually published several years ago to highlight the importance of the then upcoming French referendum on the European Union Constitution. First read it as it was printed. We can then look at some alternatives.

Original Text

On May 29, France will vote on the European Union Constitution. Five consecutive opinion polls show that the Constitution will be rejected in the French referendum. Each opinion poll has been increasingly negative.

The situation is grave and troubling. France is one of the founders of the E.U. Until now it has been considered one of its most steadfast pillars. A "no" vote in France could seriously influence referendums in other E.U. countries.

President Jacques Chirac is a strong supporter of the E.U. Constitution. The referendum is not required under French law. President Chirac made a personal decision to hold the referendum. He apparently believes he will be able to capitalize politically through a split of the French Socialists over the E.U. Constitution.

(The article went on like this &hellip and on … and on … and on.)

Now let's see how it might have been written with well-crafted longer sentences.

Version 1

This version focuses on the impact the vote is likely to have on then French president Jacques Chirac himself.

President Jacques Chirac is heading for a heavy political defeat May 29 when France holds its referendum on the European Union Constitution. Five consecutive opinion polls strongly indicate that the vote will almost certainly be negative despite President Chirac's strong support for it. Although the referendum is not required under French law, President Chirac called it in expectation that the opposition Socialists would split on the issue, thereby strengthening his government.

Version 2

This version focuses on both the political fortunes of Jacques Chirac and the broader influence of the French referendum on the cohesion of the European Union.

Both the European Union and French President Jacques Chirac appear to be heading for a heavy political defeat May 29 when France holds its referendum on the European Union Constitution. Five consecutive opinion polls strongly indicate that the vote will almost certainly be negative despite President Chirac's strong support for it. Because France is a founding member of the EU—and until now considered to be one of its strongest pillars—if France votes against the Constitution, the confidence of other member states could be severely shaken.

The problem might very well have been avoided. The referendum is not required under French law; however President Chirac appears to have called it in expectation that the opposition Socialists would split on the issue, thereby strengthening his government. Ironically, exactly the opposite seems likely to occur.

Version 3

This version focuses on the problems that will be created for the European Union by President Chirac's decision to allow a referendum.

The European Union appears to be heading for a severe setback due to a gross political miscalculation by French President Jacques Chirac. On May 29, France holds its referendum on the European Union Constitution. Five consecutive opinion polls strongly indicate that the vote will almost certainly be negative despite President Chirac's strong support for it. Because France is a founding member of the E.U.—and until now thought to be one of its strongest pillars—if France votes against the Constitution, the confidence of other member states could be profoundly shaken.

I think each one of the three versions is infinitely superior to the original because they link up ideas to help the reader better understand the significance of what they are reading. It is not easy to write this way (no one ever said that good writing is easy). However, it is well worth the effort.

Achieving texts like these takes intelligence, energy, and imagination. Like everything else in writing, there are no rules, only guidelines. Short sentences are useful when they are useful, and not useful when they are not useful. The same is true for long sentences. The writer must decide.

As the original passage amply demonstrates, slavishly bowing to the injunction "make sentences short" can be seriously counterproductive, while a healthy respect for well-crafted longer sentences can be very productive indeed.

In practical terms, when writing your text, but especially when revising it:

  • Check "long" sentences for logical coherence. If the ideas are closely related, leave the sentence alone. If not, divide it into logically coherent shorter ones.
  • Check "short" sentences for logical linkage. If the ideas in several sentences are closely related, put them together in a single sentence. If not, leave them separate.

If you have read Communication Corner No. 2 "The Three Acid Tests of Persuasive Writing," you will recognize that what is being advocated here is practical application of the acid test known as "density." Remember, density means precise information logically linked. In symbols: D = PL.

Here are a few more well-crafted "long sentences" that admirably meet the criteria of the density test.

Example 1

A former U.S. sheriff's deputy accused of making one of the internet's most frequently downloaded child pornography videos has been captured in Hong Kong after the girl he is accused of sexually abusing denounced him on the television show "America's Most Wanted."

This well-crafted sentence contains 41 words. It could be divided because it is "too long," but I don't think this would be any improvement.

A former U.S. sheriff's deputy accused of making one of the internet's most frequently downloaded child pornography videos has been captured in Hong Kong. He was arrested after the girl he is accused of sexually abusing denounced him on the television show "America's Most Wanted."

Example 2

The Palestinian Government of Mahmoud Abbas said yesterday that it had reached a deal with Egypt to take control of the Gaza border, which Hamas militants breached with blowtorches and explosives last week, allowing hundreds of thousands of people to cross into Egypt.

This well-crafted sentence contains 43 words. It could be divided because it is "too long, but once again I don't think this would be any improvement.

The Palestinian Government of Mahmoud Abbas said yesterday that it had reached a deal with Egypt to take control of the Gaza border. Hamas militants breached the border last week with blowtorches and explosives. This border breach allowed hundreds of thousands of people to cross into Egypt.

Example 3

Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia and the first African head of state to be tried for war crimes, took the stand in his own defense at The Hague on Tuesday, immediately denying a catalog of horrifying charges based on testimony from witnesses who told stories of violence, rape, amputations, and even cannibalism.

This superbly crafted sentence contains 54 words. It could be divided because it is "too long." However, I won't even try, because doing so would feel too much like sacrilege.

Mathematical Magic

Writing and speaking clearly and concisely is a leitmotiv of the "Communication Corner," so let me put myself to the test. Writing instructions without supporting diagrams or photos is a real challenge.

I am a lover of "self-working" magic tricks. These are illusions that essentially work automatically, so little or no skill is required to pull them off. Here are the instructions for just such a trick. Please let me know if you can easily and successfully follow them—or what improvements you think might be needed to do it better.

-------------

From a standard deck of 52 cards (no jokers), let the participant select any nine cards at random. Have the participant mix the cards any way they want and hand them to you face down. Put the remaining cards aside; they will not be used.

On a table, deal out the cards face down into three piles of three cards each. Have the participant select two of the piles. Remove these two piles and stack them facedown one on top of the other on the table. The table will have one pile of three cards and one pile of six cards.

With your back turned, have the participant look at the bottom card of the three-card pile and remember it. The card is the five of spades. Place this pile face down on top of the six-card pile. Now say:

"Let's test your honesty. I'm going to ask you what card you saw. You can tell me the truth or tell me a lie, whichever you prefer. In other words, you can tell me what card you really saw or you can pretend you saw a different card. Either way, the cards themselves will reveal whether you are telling the truth or telling a lie."

Let's presume the participant lies and claims the card they saw was the king of hearts. Pick up the pile of the nine cards that are facedown. Spell out the name of card the participant claimed to see by dealing from your hand on to the table one card face down for each letter in the name of this card, in this case K-I-N-G,

Place the remaining cards in your hand facedown on top of cards now on the table. Pick up this pile of cards and deal out two cards facedown for O-F. Place the remaining cards in your hand facedown on top of those now on the table.

Pick up this pile of cards. Finally, deal out the suit of the claimed card facedown on to the table. In this case, you deal out six cards for H-E-A-R-T-S. Place the cards remaining in your hand facedown on top of this pile on the table.

Pick up the pile and say:

"You claim that the card you saw was the King of Hearts, right? Now let's see if you were telling the truth."

From the cards in your hand, deal out on to the table five cards for T-R-U-T-H. Deal out the first four cards facedown. When you come to the fifth card, turn it face up. This will be the card the participant actually saw, in this case the five of spades. Now say:

"Oh, I see you are not very truthful. Isn't this the card you really saw, not the one you told me you saw?"

The participant will have to admit that they had been untruthful and told you the wrong card.

What if they had told the truth, i.e. the card they said to have seen was really the card they saw? That's easy. Simply say:

"Oh, I see you are a very honest person. You told the truth. This really is the card you saw, right?"

The trick works every time. The only thing you have to remember is: Always put the cards remaining in your hand facedown on top of the cards already on the table. That's it. There is nothing more.

Now the question is: Why does it work? I will reveal the secret next time.


HOMEWORK: Retrospective to Communication Corner No. 3

In the previous "Communication Corner," I showed you an example of how an article might look if written without due attention to the "5 Ws & H," and then the same article written by a professional conscientiously applying the 5Ws & H. I then asked you to apply the 5Ws & H to another article. First you see the article, next a commented version of the article, and finally how the article might look with the 5Ws & H fully applied.

[Original Article]

"Radical Proposal to Defeat Motor Neuron Disease"

The scientist who created Dolly the sheep yesterday applied for a license to clone human embryos to find a cure for motor neurone disease. Professor Ian Wilmot plans to use the controversial procedure to study the devastating condition that has afflicted Professor Steven Hawking, actor David Niven, and former England football manager Don Revie. Motor neurone disease affects about 5,000 patients in Britain, most of whom die within two to five years after diagnosis.

[Commented Article]

"Radical Proposal to Defeat Motor Neuron Disease"

The scientist who created Dolly the sheep (who is Dolly the sheep?) yesterday applied for a license to clone human embryos to find a cure for motor neuron disease (what is motor neuron disease?). Professor Ian Wilmot plans to use the controversial procedure to study the devastating condition that has afflicted Professor Steven Hawking (who is he?), David Niven (who is he?), and former England football manager Don Revie. Motor neuron disease affects about 5,000 patients in Britain, most of whom die within two to five years after diagnosis.

[Revised Article]

"Radical Proposal to Defeat Motor Neuron Disease"

The scientist who created Dolly the sheep, the first animal cloned from adult cells, yesterday applied for a license to clone human embryos to find a cure for motor neuron disease. Professor Ian Wilmot, of the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, plans to use the controversial procedure to study the devastating condition that has afflicted physics Professor Stephen Hawking (author of A Short History of Time), British actor David Niven, and former England football manager Don Revie. There is no cure for the condition in which nerve cells that control the muscles degenerate and die. It affects about 5,000 patients in Britain, most of whom die within two to five years after diagnosis.

Important note

You may consider it somewhat condescending to explain who Dolly the sheep is, who Stephen Hawking is, and who David Niven is. But is it?

Well yes and no. It is always necessary to adapt to your audience. If you are writing for scientists, it is reasonable to assume they know Dolly the sheep and Stephen Hawking, but not necessarily David Niven or Don Revie. If you are writing for a more general audience, it may still be reasonable to assume they probably know Stephen Hawking and David Niven, but not necessarily Dolly the sheep or Don Revie.

In the above example, the author was writing for a broad, unspecified audience, and so identified everyone mentioned in the article. This is good practice. It makes the text a bit longer, but much more comprehensible. You will note professional publications almost always identify the obvious, e.g. an American newspaper will not simply say Donald Trump but President Donald Trump; an international newspaper would probably go a step further and say U.S. President Donald Trump.

Over explaining is almost always better than under explaining. If the text is well crafted, over-explaining is unlikely even to be noticed because the additional information is so well integrated. Under explaining is always noticed because it leaves the reader dissatisfied and even confused.

Deciding what constitutes over explaining and under- explaining is not an easy task. But it must be done with every text you write. You may not always make the right choices, but not choosing at all is always wrong.

CURRENT HOMEWORK

Learning to use the 5Ws & H and the three acid tests is crucial to significantly improving how well one writes, and by extension how well one speaks in public. So here are some short exercises for you to try. But first, a couple of examples:

Example 1

[Original]

Much of the supply of vaccine needed for the impending flu season in the United States may not be available. The announcement—which caught U.S. health officials by surprise—raises serious concern about whether there will be enough vaccine to protect those at greatest risk. The health officials say they are working with Aventis Pasteur to see if production can be increased.

[Analysis]

Much (how much?) of the supply of vaccine needed for the impending flu season in the United States may not be available (why?). The announcement—which caught U.S. health officials by surprise (why?) — raises serious concern about whether there will be enough vaccine to protect those at greatest risk (who are they?). The health officials say they are working with Aventis Pasteur to see if production can be increased (why Aventis Pasteur?).

  1. About 50 percent of the needed vaccine may not be available.
  2. British health authorities suspended the license of the Chiron Company to make the vaccine.
  3. U.S. health officials were surprised because this decision was taken by another government without prior notification.
  4. Greatest risk = children and persons over 65.
  5. Aventis Pasteur is the only other company making flu vaccine for the U.S.

[Revision]

Approximately half of the vaccine needed for the impending flu season in the United States may not be available because Britain's health authorities have suspended the Chiron Company's license to manufacture it.

The announcement—about which U.S. health officials had no prior warning—raises serious concern as to whether there will be enough vaccine to protect those at greatest risk (children, the over-65s). The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is in urgent discussions with Aventis Pasteur, the only other company making flu shots for the American market, to see if its production can be increased to compensate, at least partially, for the expected shortfall.

Notes

  1. The second sentence now clearly explains why U.S. officials were caught by surprise.
  2. Note the change from the general term "U.S. health officials" to the "U.S. Department of Health and Human Services," the precise name of the agency responsible for trying to solve the problem.
  3. Because it is not sufficiently dense, the original suggests Aventis Pasteur is having problems producing the vaccine. The revision avoids this misconception by clearly explaining that the problem lies with Chiron.

Example

[Original]

Oxford University has once again petitioned the High Court to protect its buildings and staff from animal rights activists. It is asking that a temporary exclusion zone, in force since last month, be made permanent until a full civil trial on the matter can take place. The "no harassment" boundary prohibits protesters from going within 35 meters of university property.

University officials said that work on its new £18 million bio-medical research laboratory was stopped in July because contractors were being intimidated by animal rights activists. Animal testing to be carried out in the facility would be 98 percent on rodents with the remaining 2 percent on amphibians, fish, ferrets and primates.

[Analysis]

The problem here is not missing information, but how the information is presented, i.e. the text lacks density. Re-order the information to improve the density.

[Revision]

Oxford University has renewed its battle with animal rights activists by petitioning for a High Court injunction to limit protests, which university officials said have stopped construction work on its new bio-medical research laboratory since July. The £18 million facility would use animals for testing with 98 percent of experiments on rodents and the remaining 2 percent on amphibians, fish, ferrets and primates.

The university claimed that the activists are intimidating contractors working on the new facility. It wants a temporary exclusion zone, in force since last month, to be made permanent until a full civil trial on the matter can take place. The "no harassment" boundary prohibits protesters from going within 35 meters of university property.

Notes

  1. The Revision passes the Stop Reading Test. People could stop reading after the first two paragraphs and still have a clear, sharp picture of what the story is about.
  2. Note the use of the present tense "have" (not "had") in the first sentence of the first paragraph, and "are" (not "were") in the first sentence of the second paragraph.

Now it's your turn. Here are two texts that require revision. You will see the text as it was originally written, then an analysis of its shortcomings. Your job is to revise it according to the principles of the 5Ws & H and Three Acid Tests.

Exercise 1

[Original]

Belgian police yesterday raided the Brussels office of Stern and arrested its correspondent in connection with an article he had published about the European Parliament.

[Analysis]

Belgian police yesterday raided the Brussels office of Stern (what is Stern?) and arrested its correspondent in connection with an article he had published about the European Parliament (what was controversial about the article?).

  1. Stern is a weekly German news magazine.
  2. The article was about suspected fraud in the European Parliament.

Exercise 2

[Original]

Taking a united stand, the French Government and Muslim leaders Sunday condemned Iraqi terrorists who kidnapped two French journalists in order to pressure France into revoking a law that bans Islamic headscarves in state schools.

Saturday night the "Islamic Army" issued a 48-hour ultimatum on the lives of the two journalists. This set into motion a day of emergency meetings in Paris between President Jacques Chirac, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the Prime Minister, and Muslim leaders seeking a strategy for dealing with France's first hostage crisis in the Iraq conflict.

As his initial move, President Chirac yesterday sent Michel Barnier, the Foreign Minister, to the region for a first-hand assessment of the situation.

[Analysis]

Taking a united stand, the French Government and Muslim leaders Sunday condemned Iraqi terrorists who kidnapped two French journalists (were the journalists kidnapped in Iraq or France?) in order to pressure France into revoking a law that bans Islamic headscarves in state schools (is this law specific only to Islamic headscarves?).

Saturday night the "Islamic Army" in Iraq issued a 48-hour ultimatum on the lives of the two journalists (is the "Islamic Army" new or has it already been active?). This set into motion a day of emergency meetings in Paris between President Jacques Chirac, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, Prime Minister, and Muslim leaders seeking a strategy for dealing with France's first hostage crisis in the Iraq conflict.

As his initial move, President Chirac yesterday sent Michel Barnier, the Foreign Minister, to the region for a first-hand assessment of the situation.

  1. The kidnappings took place in Iraq.
  2. The law bans all religious symbols such as Christian crosses, Jewish scull caps, and Sikh turbans.
  3. A week earlier the Islamic Army said that it had killed an Italian journalist in Iraq.

Author

Philip Yaffe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1942 and grew up in Los Angeles, where he graduated from the University of California with a degree in mathematics and physics. In his senior year, he was also editor-in-chief of the Daily Bruin, UCLA's daily student newspaper. He has more than 40 years of experience in journalism and international marketing communication. At various points in his career, he has been a teacher of journalism, a reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal, an account executive with a major international press relations agency, European marketing communication director with two major international companies, and a founding partner of a specialized marketing communication agency in Brussels, Belgium, where he has lived since 1974. He is the author of more than 20 books, which can be found easily in Amazon Kindle.

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