Structure is key to good writing, but once you’re happy with your structure, it’s time to refine your sentences.
Here are some techniques to consider when examining your own sentences.
1. Grab attention and set the tone with your first sentence
Too often, first sentences are throat-clearing sentences and tell us little about what’s to follow. In business writing we want to know what the document or email is about and why we should read it.
A poor example: Work has continued following the presentation of the draft Volunteerism Strategy in August. (What work?)
Better: The draft Volunteerism Strategy presented in August has been refined based on the results of a staff survey.
We’ve refined the draft Volunteerism Strategy presented in August, based on the results of a staff survey.
Whether you use first or third person depends on the formality of your document. Many documents are more informal these days, but some, for example, board papers, are still third person.
The first sentence also sets the tone. This is especially true in email communications. Sometimes you can get straight to the point and at other times you need to provide some context. How much background you need depends on how well you know the reader and what they know about the topic. So does your tone.
Thank you, in anticipation, for writing a letter supporting my application for a writing scholarship.
I would really appreciate it if you could write a letter supporting my application for a writing scholarship.
I need your help!
As you know, I am applying for a writing scholarship and need letters of endorsement.
2. Vary your sentence length
If every sentence in a paragraph is approximately the same length, your writing may not flow well. This problem is compounded when several sentences within the paragraph start with the same or similar word. Overuse of The, They and There tends to disrupt the flow of a paragraph.
Independent estimators have prepared the project cost estimate. They have extensive experience working in the industry. They are currently working on several projects of a similar scale. The cost estimate has been developed using preliminary design information and detailed geotechnical investigation reports. A risk assessment has been undertaken to identify project cost risks. The cost estimate will be refined as the detailed design progresses. The cost estimate is presented as a maximum project cost.
Independent estimators have developed a maximum project cost estimate and risk assessment based on preliminary design information and geotechnical reports. The estimators have extensive experience in the industry, having worked on several projects of a similar scale.
You will notice that combining ideas into well-constructed sentences like the above has a side benefit – the paragraph is now shorter and easier to read.
3. Change the sentence function
Sentences can be defined by their function. They can be declamatory (make statements), interrogative (ask questions), imperative (issue commands) or exclamatory. Changing sentence function can change a sentence’s impact and tone, especially in email communications or website content.
The enfranchisement of Australian women to vote AND stand for Parliament was a world first. (abc.net.au)
Did you know that the enfranchisement of Australian women to vote AND stand for Parliament was a world first?
Let’s not forget – the enfranchisement of Australian women to vote AND stand for Parliament was a world first.
Enfranchisement AND standing for Parliament – a world first for Australian women!
4. Change the syntax
Syntax is arrangement of words and phrases to form sentences. Changing the word order, changes the emphasis and rhythm of a sentence.
Playing with syntax can change the rhythm of language in literature. For example, compare the line of poetry below with prose, which has a different word order:
‘What light from yonder window breaks?’ (Romeo and Juliet)
What light breaks from yonder window?
Yet playing with syntax is not confined to poetry. You can also use this technique in business writing to change the tone and emphasis. For instance, rewriting a sentence in the active voice changes the tone.
The project manager engaged by the company has requested quotes from two builders which should be received next week.
The company’s project manager should receive quotes from two builders next week.
Rewriting the way you lead into a sentence changes the emphasis.
The project engaged a law firm to perform the review, which is now complete, with confirmation that the Outsource Policy as amended is consistent with the Prudential Standard.
The amended Outsource Policy has been reviewed by a law firm who confirmed it is consistent with the Prudential Standard.
5. Change the words (diction)
Many writers tend to dress up their words in business writing, mistakenly thinking that big words and management speak sound more authoritative. That’s not true. An informed statement couched in clear, direct language usually makes a much stronger impact.
Sometimes changing nouns to verbs can make your writing punchier. Compare:
The purchase of direct infrastructure assets required a sell down of international equities to fund the transaction.
International equities were sold to purchase direct infrastructure assets.
Your word choice affects clarity and tone. Some of my pet hates are promisingly, focused, deep dive, reach out, revert (used in emails to mean ‘get back to you’), robust and significant.
Some I dislike because they are clichéd (deep dive) and others I dislike because they are not specific enough (robust). To describe your company’s cash flow as robust sounds impressive but if that cash flow is much improved (a more useful phrase) it might be better to give the actual figures. I particularly dislike significant because it is liberally used in business writing without being defined or quantified. It is more useful to explain why and how something is out of the ordinary.
plainlanguage.gov has a list of simple words and phrases.
PS Most of the examples are based on real sentences that have been modified to make them anonymous.