A person usually has good intentions when he or she suggests the right way or wrong way to do something in writing, but if you ask the person why that is the accepted way, you often hear, it just sounds better or that’s the way I was taught, or the more candid I don’t really know.

Tips for writing with clarity are abundant; added explanation that deepens your understanding is scarce.

Don’t write long sentences is good advice because exceedingly long sentences are difficult to follow, but it might be helpful to have a more complete explanation.

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Long sentences are too much for the brain to wrestle with. To understand your meaning in a sentence, the brain needs a frame of reference. So as it moves through the sentence, it creates a mental model of the situation you are describing. It is trying to make sense of the individual words and their meanings while also trying to understand how those words – people, places, objects, and ideas – are related. When the sentence contains numerous clauses, phrases, and technical terms, or when there are numerous nouns performing three or four actions, the brain struggles to create that mental picture.

Sentences should be of various lengths, generally between 12 and 25 words, but some will be shorter, some longer. Keeping all your sentences short is not advisable, because that will establish a repetitive, boring pattern. But you don’t want sentences that leave the reader gasping for air at the end either. Read your writing aloud. Your ear will usually tell you when a sentence is too long, is missing punctuation, or is awkwardly constructed.

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Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach and former Associated Press writer who conducts corporate workshops on business writing, persuasive writing, and corporate communications writing. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill), which is available here at Amazon.com.

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