Sunday, December 27, 2009

A good writing tip - break it in two

One of my writing tips to students is that their sentences will almost always be more clear if they can reduce the number of syllables (my so-called "fog factor" exercise which involves eliminating the "fog" in one's writing by reducing the number of syllables the reader must slog through).  For example, substituting words like "use" for "utilize," "car" for "automobile" or changing the passive "the holding of the court was . . . " to the active "the court held."  Both techniques increase pithiness and reduce reader fatigue. 

The Business Writing Blog reminded me of another "fog factor" technique I show students to help them make their writing more clear and concise.  I tell them that if they find themselves trying to explain too much in a single sentence, the solution is often to break it in two. This is frequently a problem for novice legal writers who try to explain compound legal concepts (such as the elements of a cause of action) in a single, run-on sentence.   Trying to explain too much in one sentence often leads to unnecessary complexity and reader confusion.

Below is an example from the BWB.  Because the author tries to explain too much in a single sentence, he mistakenly attributes the woman's collapse with the EMT's break:

Two EMTs are accused of ignoring a pregnant woman who collapsed and later died because they were on break.  

And here's the "fix" which avoids this confusion by breaking it in two:

Two EMTs are accused of ignoring a collapsed pregnant woman because they were on their break. The woman later died.

OK, so the BWB post is really about the need to proof-read aloud to avoid "crazy connections" as illustrated by the first sentence.  But it also reminded me of my own "break it in two" tip to students.   So there are now two take-aways from this post:  1.  Proof-read out loud your own writing to avoid confusing the reader; and 2.  break compound sentences into two to improve clarity and conciseness.

I am the scholarship dude.


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I thought "increase pithiness" was a magnificent pairing, just on the verge of being an oxymoron, but not quite over the threshold. It's a call to increase a decrease.

Posted by: Andy | Dec 29, 2009 7:00:36 AM

The idea of "fog" as a measure of readability is quite old, really. There is a Gunning "fog index" (from 1952) based on the ratio of words with three or more syllables to all words in a sample. The result is similar the the Flesch readability score embedded in Word. See for an on-line tool for calculating a fog index. (The score for the first two paragraphs of this blog is just over 11, so should be comprehensible to a high-school junior.)

Posted by: Garrison | Dec 29, 2009 12:13:39 PM

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