Three-Part Series on Writing Clearly and Concisely: Part II – A Shortcut to Clearer Sentences

By David Chrisinger

In my last post, we talked about paragraph coherence and the “old-to-new” sequence. In this post, we’re moving from the paragraph level to the sentence level. Specifically, I’m going to share with you a shortcut for writing sentences your reader will be able to clearly picture, which will help make what you’re trying to say much more persuasive.

It’s helpful to picture your reader as a vagabond on a quest for meaning. To make meaning for the reader, your sentences need a clear actor and some clear action.

Here’s what it looks like when there isn’t a clear actor and action:

Clinical and preventive strategies to reverse negative trends and reinforce positive trends as well as address persistent concerns are to be considered, especially if they are directed toward the veteran population as a whole with targeted messaging and intervention to high-risk populations, including young men, women, patients with known mental health conditions, and patients at known risk for suicide.

Can you see the problem here? Why is it so hard to quickly figure out the point of this sentence?

As Joseph M. Williams and Gregory Colomb point out in Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, a clear and concise sentence has a strong “sentence core” that states the:

  1. Actor (the doer of the action) in the subject of the sentence and the
  2. Action (what the actor is doing) in the verb.

Communication between writer and reader quickly breaks down, as it did in the example above, when the sentence core is “weak;” that is, when it doesn’t contain the important content and when its meaning is difficult to grasp.

In the example above, who is the actor? What is the action?

The way it’s currently written, the actor is “Clinical and preventive strategies to reverse negative trends and reinforce positive trends as well as address persistent concerns.”

And what about the action? You guessed it: “are to be considered.”

To clear things up and make the point of the example above much easier to understand, all we have to do is place the subject (the actor) close to the verb (the action), and place the subject and verb close to the beginning of the sentence.

To make our example above clearer, we’ll need to find an actor and some action. Here’s one way we could revise:

Clinicians should consider incorporating preventive strategies to reverse negative trends and reinforce positive trends in the care of military veterans, especially if they are directed toward the veteran population as a whole with targeted messaging and intervention to high-risk populations, including young men, women, patients with known mental health conditions, and patients at known risk for suicide.

Better, right? At least we can begin to picture what’s happening—or needs to happen.

Readers will judge your writing easier to follow and understand if they know who is doing what. The easiest way to make sure they can do that is to place your subject and verb close together and make sure your subject and verb are close to the beginning of the sentence.

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David Chrisinger is a Foresight and Strategic Planning Analyst at the U.S. Government Accountability Office. For six years, he also taught public policy writing at Johns Hopkins University, and in 2017, he wrote PUBLIC POLICY WRITING THAT MATTERS, a book for everyone passionate about using writing to effect real and lasting change.