My friends often email me seeking help on writing. This post adds to the reply I gave to one of my friends who asked:
What should I look for to construct better sentences?
I assume the question relates more to work-related writing (jotting thoughts down) than speaking. So, I am slightly changing the question to fit it as the topic for the post. 😊
Here are my top 3 suggestions for writing better sentences:
Tip 1: Give Action Points
Whether it is emails, meeting notes, Sprint retrospections, or a web chat with a colleague, clarity in communication is of the utmost importance. Be clear with what you wish to say. Write, then read (and, if required, re-write). Then, send. But, please mind the gap; there is a difference between being straightforward and being offensive.
Tip 2: Use Active Voice
Consider that Ram is preparing meeting minutes. This is what he writes as an action item:
Inputs on project estimation must be given.
See how he skips mentioning the doer in this passive sentence. That’s usually with every passive sentence. Let us rephrase this to introduce active voice (and hence the doer):
Shyam needs to give inputs to the PMO for project estimation.
See how sentences in the active voice clearly define responsibilities? Had Ram circulated an email with a passive sentence, we wouldn’t even know Shyam was supposed to share his inputs.
But, should we always construct sentences in the active voice?
No. In cases when you generalize or do not have any recipient for actions, you may use the passive voice. For example:
The velocity improved for the Sprint.
In this case, because the velocity improved for the entire team, we are sure that each one of the teammates contributed more. You may also use the passive voice for highlighting facts and figures. In the same example:
The velocity improved by over 5% for the Sprint.
An average of 5% capacity is reserved for holidays.
(Considering reservation of capacity to be a known item for capacity planning.)
Tip 3: Remove Needless Words
There are words that do not add to the meaning or intensity of the words they accompany. For example, “very” and “really”. However, approach this tip with caution.
Consider this example:
This cake takes very good.
We might as well get rid of “very”, and the cake will still taste equally good. But, by no means should you take this as a rule of thumb for deleting all occurrences of “very”. The very purpose of “very” (pun intended) is to intensify something that already exists.
If, however, there is a rule of thumb, it is to seek brevity. Look for opportunities to shorten or, at least, vary the length of your sentences. This means you give the reader more opportunities to flow with the rhythm of the words, take sufficient pauses, and contemplate on what they read.
Bonus Tip: Listen to Your Mental Ears
I really like such sections—another exception to Tip#3. Readers would usually jump over to this section first. If you too did just that, welcome aboard. As I share my top 3 tips for writing better sentences, I see that most of us already know the tips. The problem is they don’t know how to put that knowledge into practice.
How do we identify what and when to change?
I’d say listen to your mental ears. They are never wrong. You can always check for the meanings of words or phrases you are not sure of. Look at your write-ups the next day. Take a print out and read out loud. Project the write-ups on a bigger screen. Let someone else read your write-ups out loud to you. Take a break and re-read your write-ups. There’s a lot that can come in handy. But, nothing beats the joy of rewriting. Before I release my posts, I write and rewrite them in the proportion of 1:4.
Let us revise:
- Enlist actionable items. I just did that.
- Use active voice, but don’t be offensive.
- Remove words that do not affect or contribute to the meaning of your sentences.
Sub-topics like “varying lengths of sentences” demand a post of their own. We can even experiment with including a combination of words that produce lyrical or homophonic composition: “she sells seashells”.
To sum up this post, here’s what I have: it all depends on finding the sweet spot where meet relevance and comprehension.