Eclectic Blog

Controlling Sentence Length

Writing is often plagued with sentences that are too long. The more words and relationships in a sentence, the more confused your readers may become. As writers, we need to remember that our brains process information better when it’s presented in small chunks.

Using shorter words and removing bulky phrases is one way to reduce sentence length. However, controlling sentence length is also a matter of selecting information units and making separate sentences for each unit. In other words, a sentence should only cover one main thought or idea. When you change ideas, start a new sentence.

A good guideline to follow is to keep sentences to a maximum of 2.5 typed lines. If a sentence is over 2.5 lines, there is probably more than one idea being presented to readers. Sometimes a sentence with only one idea might end up being longer than 2.5 typed lines, or much shorter. That’s fine, because having different sentence lengths adds variety to your writing.

You can also prevent your sentences from becoming overly long by avoiding the overuse of linking words such as and, but, or, so, because, also and however. All of these words are useful to help you link ideas, but if you overdo it, your sentences can get away from you.

You can have a never-ending sentence if you throw in too many of these linking words.

Let’s look at an example of a sentence that can be chunked into shorter ideas.

Before

Our job is to stay between the stacker and the tie machine to see if the newspapers jam, in which case we pull the bundles off and stack them on a skid because otherwise they would back up in the stacker and the press would have to be turned off.

After

Our job is to stay between the stacker and the tie machine to see if the newspapers jam. If they do, we pull the bundles off and stack them on a skid. Otherwise, they would back up in the stacker and the press would have to be turned off.

We’ve taken one sentence and turned it into three. By separating the three ideas, we’ve made this text easier to read, something your readers will appreciate.

Evaluating Training by Examining Performance

Evaluating performance means taking your training beyond the classroom. You’ve already taken a training class and confirmed you learned what you were supposed to. Now ask yourself, have you taken your new knowledge or skill back to the workplace?

Performance looks at how we transfer and use the learning that we do in a formal learning setting. Here, we are looking at the practical effects of training.

Why Performance Doesn’t Always Change after Training

Just because you have learned something new doesn’t mean your performance will change. Sometimes, we go back to work and keep on doing things the same way we did before training. Why? There can be a number of factors at play.

Sometimes, we are resistant to change. Just because you can do something in a new way doesn’t mean you want to. Without support and supervision from management, change isn’t likely to happen. This may also be a sign that training didn’t do a good job of explaining how this new method will benefit you and other employees.

Changing habits also takes focus and time until new skills become ingrained. If you feel rushed or unsupported, you may not be able to apply your learning. For example, if you learned how to write business documents using plain language, but have a manager who still insists you write using business jargon, you aren’t likely to change the way you write.

The Bottom Line

If you want to know how effective your training was, your performance back on the job needs to be examined by you and management. To help ensure success, management also needs to look at ways to support you while you are changing your behaviour.

When Can I Use a Dash?

In writing, we often provide additional information that is not needed in the sentence for its meaning to be clear to the reader. That additional information is call a non-essential clause.

In this example, if you remove the non-essential clause in italics, your reader knows which person is easy to work with.

Dave, who was hired as creative director, is easy to work with.

When setting off non-essential information in the middle of a sentence, you can use commas, parentheses or dashes. Which punctuation you use is a style choice.

Em dashes tend to emphasize.

Acme Plastics — once a leader in its field — has fallen on hard economic times.

Parentheses tend to de-emphasize.

Acme Plastics (once a leader in its field) has fallen on hard economic times.

Commas tend to be neutral.

Acme Plastics, once a leader in its field, has fallen on hard economic times.

You can use dashes in other ways too:

  • to replace a colon in informal writing

Example: Ms. Prairie has all the qualities of a great teacher — a sense of humour, a knowledge of her subject and a love of her students.

  • to emphasize a word or phrase

Example: The new website is difficult to navigate — especially the search function.

What’s the Difference Between En and Em Dashes?

En and em dashes are not interchangeable.

  • Use an en dash to separate numbers and dates.
    Example: Her dates of service were 2011–2015.
     
  • Use an en dash to combine open compounds.
    Example: His sales territory extends across the Ontario–Quebec border.

What Makes a Writing Workshop Effective?

Often at the end of a workshop, you’ll be asked to complete an evaluation sheet. These sheets tend to only focus on whether you found the training favorable or engaging. However, if you’re attending a workshop with the intention of learning something, shouldn’t you be focusing on what you’ve learned, as opposed to how much you liked it?

How Can We Measure Learning?

When looking at this level of evaluation, we are asking if you’ve actually learned what you were supposed to in the training. For example, if one of the learning objectives states that you will be able to create clear and concise emails with effective subject lines, salutations and closings, then learning means you can create clear and concise emails on your own by the end of training.

One way to ensure you’ve learned what you are supposed to is by using learning activities throughout the training. The best training is not simply talking at people and sending them back to work. Every time you learn something new, you need time in the session to practice it. With bigger or more complicated skills, these should be broken down into smaller tasks, so your learning can be evaluated throughout the training day.

Going back to our email example, after training, learners might be asked to submit an email to the instructor for feedback. This way, you can know if you’ve formatted it well and included all the relevant content. You should get feedback on what you’ve done well and what can be improved for next time.

If you aren’t given the time to practice new skills or demonstrate your knowledge while in the training environment, you will never know if you’ve learned anything at all. Also, activities to help measure your learning will also help you retain what you have learned when you go back to work.

Before you register for your next workshop, ask the provider these questions:

  • What activities will we be doing to practise the skills that I am learning?
  • How will I demonstrate what I’ve learned during the workshop?
  • How will I receive feedback on my progress?

Do You Need to Write That Policy or Procedure?

Most organizations have various policies and procedures in place to address possible concerns and to provide direction to employees. Sometimes you will need to update these documents or create new ones. The first step you should take before creating new policy and procedure documents is to decide if you even need them.

Here are four key points to consider when deciding if you need new policies and procedures:

  • They need to apply to the many, not the few, in your organization.
  • They must be followed consistently, which gives management less flexibility to treat each situation as unique.
  • They must be well thought out, because a procedure or policy intended to protect your organization can actually cause damage if it is poorly planned or executed.
  • They can be hard to change after they’ve been implemented, even if they are bad policies or procedures.

See below for examples of when to create policies and procedures and when not to.

When to create policies and procedures:

  • Legislation requires an organization to have a specific policy or procedure in place on a specific issue, such as parental leave.
  • The regulations and steps to be followed are rigidly defined and a policy or procedure will help to ensure compliance.
  • Employees are confused about certain areas of the business, such as using a company cell phone for non-work purposes, and a policy or procedure would eliminate the confusion.

When Not to Create Policies and Procedures

  • Organization culture and norms are already working well for the topic you want to cover. For example, if all employees already dress in an acceptable way, you don’t need a dress code policy.
  • The policy or procedure will be difficult to enforce.
  • The directives are intrusive or illegal. For example, asking employees for their personal social media passwords.

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