Writing Tip 2: Don't Overload Your Sentences!
Some sentences can get rather overloaded!
When writing a first draft it is easy to overload your sentences with too much information.
When editing you have a chance to stand back from what you have written to see if it really communicates what you wish to say. Often you need to unpack some things from a sentence to make it work.
Here are two things to look out for when editing overloaded sentences:
1. Where is the Subject?
The subject of a sentence is the main person or thing performing the main action. It is not necessarily the same as the topic of the sentence. When writing, it is quite easy to lose your sentence subject in the topic:
Following our recent phone conversation of 6 February in which we discussed the possibility of cooperation between our two agencies in restoring an NGO presence in the city of Balan following the end of the civil war there and agreed to look further into ways and means, I am writing to you to propose that we meet in the coming weeks to discuss further the idea of cooperation between our two agencies.
Phew! This is an overloaded sentence. 'I' here is the subject and 'am writing' is the main verb (and purpose) of the sentence. But before getting to the subject the writer has used a long sub-clause (actually more than one!) to introduce the background topic or 'archive' of the letter. As an opening sentence in a letter this is not effective.
Notice how the second half of the sentence runs into problems. The writer is forced to repeat the word 'cooperation'. This is confusing for the reader because the sub-clause has done all the work of the sentence, leaving the main clause with little to do.
How could this be improved?
The writer could try using a shorter introduction clause:
Following our recent phone conversation about possible cooperation in Balan, I am writing.....
Here the subject is closer to the start of the sentence and the 'archive' is kept to a minimum.
Another approach would be to remove the introductory phrase altogether and put the topic or 'archive' into a second sentence:
I am writing to propose that we meet in the coming weeks to discuss possible cooperation between our two agencies in restoring an NGO presence in the city of Balan. As you will recall, we recently discussed this matter in a phone conversation on 6 February and agreed to look further into the ways and means of cooperation.
Here the first sentence has a clearer S V O pattern:
SUBJECT ('I') + MAIN VERBS ('..am writing to propose') and OBJECT ('...the possibility of cooperation..').
These are the key elements of the sentence. The sentence makes both subject and topic clear. The second sentence is the 'archive' as it mentions the phone call. Although the word 'cooperation' is used again in this second sentence, a new concept ('ways and means') is introduced, preparing the reader for the next part of the letter.
2. Chunk Down
The problem of long sentences is often solved simply by chunking down: turn one long sentence into two or more shorter ones. Consider this example:
Working together could have considerable benefits for both our organisations because it would mean that we could share premises and operational costs and communicate better with the government authorities in Balanan, and moreover we could make more effective representations to world governments and the United Nations, who as you know recently identified Balanan as a country in need of long-term reconstruction aid and encouraged NGOs to work together in the post-war recovery period.
This sentence begins well. Its subject ('Working together') and its main verbal unit ('will have considerable benefits for..') are both clear. It runs into problems because it tries to fit too many items into the rest of the sentence. Look at all those linking words
because + and + and + and + moreover + and + who + and
all trying to hold the sentence together.
How could this be solved? Try breaking the long sentence down into smaller ones:
Working together could have considerable benefits for both our organisations. We could, for example, share premises and operational costs. We could also secure better communication with the Balanan government. Moreover, we could make more effective representations to world governments and the United Nations. The latter recently identified Balanan as a country in need of long-term reconstruction aid and encouraged NGOs to work together in the post-war recovery period.
This revised version makes four sentences out of the original one. There is now no sense of the text being overloaded with information. The sentences follow on from each other. Note how 'we' in the second sentence relates back to 'our organisations' in the first; and 'the latter' in the fifth sentence relates back to 'the United Nations' in the fourth.
Also, the repetition of 'we could' helps to hold the paragraph together:
We could.......We could also....Moreover, we could....Moreover....
Note the work done by the linking word 'Moreover' here. It works better as a sentence opener, followed by a comma, than in the middle of a sentence after 'and'. As well as adding another point to the writer's argument it signals a slight change of direction in the paragraph.
Other 'signpost' words which can be used to begin sentences and signal changes of direction are:
However,.......Furthermore,......In contrast,........First of all,..........Consequently,.........
* Try to get your sentence subject close to the start of the sentence
* Make sure the main verbs of the sentence are clear
* Chunk down if your sentence is becoming too long or complicated
* Limit the number of linking words (and, but, moreover) that you use in one sentence
* Try using some signpost words at the start of sentences
* Don't be afraid of the short sentence. It can work wonders!