Part of my regular editorial feedback to authors invariably includes a word about letting sentences breathe. As our eyes sail across a page, gathering and comprehending the whole, our brains need that nanosecond to absorb order and meaning.
Independent clauses provide good information, but too many in one sentence can overwhelm a reader. What English teachers call subordinate clauses, conjunctions and prepositions describe the common words we know as when, instead, and, if, because, but, whether, however, although, despite, since. The internet is loaded with lists of words that fit these grammatical categories. Use them, of course, but avoid using them all in the same sentence.
Here’s an example I created off the top of my head based on the type of line editing I have done for some subject-matter experts who also happen to be reluctant writers. (Full disclosure: none of my clients are in this field.)
When it comes to unemployment, employers and recruiters inadvertently put the onus on the applicant to change how they do things, tailor their resumes, approach interviews differently, follow up, etc., and while we typically see improvement in their corrections and rate of interview successes, it could be equally as helpful if they offered automated updates regularly to candidates regarding status so they feel like their time is being respected and don’t have to wait or wonder indefinitely for the bad news or about what the next steps are going to be and, worse, they’re ghosted because that gets very discouraging even though their primary focus is to fill the position with the best candidate, they need to be aware of the soul-crushing process that the applicants are forced to endure, especially through an unprecedented pandemic, which can make a huge difference in the wider world of job seekers.
I applaud the idea of throwing everything you’ve got out there to get started on a project, whether a social media post, blog, magazine article or book. That stream-of-consciousness approach can be a valuable strategy for writer’s block. However, once your main message is crafted within a solid structure, stay attuned to the pace of your final draft. You should be able to hear when big knots start to choke the life out of a good message. Good sentences need to breathe in order to flow.
As I’ve blogged before, not every sentence needs to run a four-line marathon. One way to stay conscious of how easy your sentences are to comprehend is to read them aloud or hear them read aloud. Your readers appreciate the valuable nanosecond that a period and other clarifying punctuation offer so they can absorb your content.
Notice how this revised example shares the same sentiments and uses the same number of lines. Half of these eight sentences are still long, but the needed punctuation helps to delineate the message, giving the entire passage more clarity and polish.
When it comes to unemployment, employers and recruiters inadvertently put the onus on the applicant to change how they do things — tailor a resume, approach an interview, follow up. While they typically see improvement in corrections and rate-of-interview successes, employers and recruiters could be equally helpful if they offered candidates regular automated updates regarding application status. Job seekers want to feel that their time is respected. They don’t want to wait indefinitely for bad news or next steps. They are often left wondering what’s going on and, worse, are ghosted. That gets discouraging. HR’s primary focus is to fill the position with the best candidate, but they also need to be aware of the soul-crushing process applicants are forced to endure, especially through an unprecedented pandemic. They have the resources to make a huge difference in the wider world of job seekers.
Subject-matter experts, keep writing, for sure, and be on the lookout for your overpacked sentences, which typically lead to awkward sentence structure. Rather than heaping one idea after another into a sentence, read across every line of your finished piece. Notice the length of your sentences and paragraphs.
- How many of my sentences are more than two lines long?
- Are my longer sentences in this paragraph clear?
- Where did I stumble when I read this section out loud?
- Are my transitional sentences connecting each paragraph to the next?
- Are my paragraphs short enough to keep my reader engaged?
Important thoughts deserve separate sentences and paragraphs. Allow each the chance to breathe.