Online Technical Writing:
Power-Revision Techniques—Sentence-Level Revision



You've probably heard plenty of times that writing should be lean, mean, clear, direct, succinct, active, and so on. This is one of those self-evident truths—why would anyone set out to write any other way? But what does that really mean, what do sentences look like that are not that way, what sorts of things are wrong with them, and how do you fix them?

Sentences do have ways of becoming flabby, redundant, wordy, unclear, indirect, passive, and just plain old hard to understand. Even so, they remain grammatically "correct"—all their subjects and verbs agree, the commas are in the right places, the words are spelled correctly. Still, these sentences are far more difficult to read than any sentence with just a comma problem.

The following sections can't pretend to cover all of the ways sentences can go bad at this higher level, but they do cover seven of the most common problems and shows you ways of fixing them. And knowing these seven will probably enable you to spot all the others we have not trapped and labeled yet. Specifically, here is what is covered:

Revise weak be-verbs

One of the big culprits that cause weak, indirect writing is the use of the be verb as the main verb. That's not to say that the be verb should never be used as the main verb, just that there are cases where doing so makes for weak writing. Look at the following examples of this problem—they are not that hard to spot. Then look at the revisions—notice how a noun (often one ending in -ion) has been converted into a verb. That's how to fix this problem—find a noun to convert into an active verb, and then rebuild the sentence upon it!

 
Problem:   The contribution of Quality Circles is mostly to areas of
           training and motivating people to produce higher quality 
           work.

Revision:  Quality Circles contribute to the training and the 
           motivating of people to produce high quality work.
 
Problem:   Measurement of temperature is done in degrees of Fahrenheit
           or Celsius, and its indications are by colored marks on the 
           outside of the thermometer.

Revision:  Temperature is measured in degrees of Fahrenheit or 
           Celsius and is indicated by colored marks on the outside 
           of the thermometer.
 
Problem:   The beginning of the clonic phase is when the sustained
           tonic spasm of the muscles gives way to sharp, short, 
           interrupted jerks.

Revision:  The clonic phase begins when the sustained tonic spasm of 
           the muscle gives way to sharp, short, interrupted jerks.
 
Problem:   During speech, the generation of sound is by vocal chords
           and the rushing of air from the lungs.

Revision:  During speech, sound is generated by the vocal cords and 
           rushing air from the lungs.
 
Problem:   The response of the normal ear to sounds is in the
           audio-frequency between about 20-20,000 Hz.

Revision:  The normal ear responds to sounds within the 
           audio-frequency range of about 20-20,000 Hz.

Revise noun stacks

Another common sentence-style problem involves piling up nouns in a phrase. The effect is similar being hit in the head with a large blunt object. Again, take a look at the examples of this problem, which are also not hard to spot, and at the revisions. When you revise a "noun stack," you unpack or unstack the nouns into clauses and phrases:

Problem:   There is a growing awareness of organizational employee
           creative capacity.  

Revision:  Awareness of the creative capacity
           of employees in all organizations is growing.
 
Problem:   Position acquisition requirements are any combination of
           high school graduation and years of increasingly responsible 
           secretarial experience.

Revision:  To qualify for the position, you'll need to be a high 
           school graduate and have had increasingly responsible 
           secretarial experience.
 
Problem:   The Quality Circle participation roles and tasks and
           time/cost requirements of Quality Circle organizational 
           implementation will be described.

Revision:  The tasks of the participants in Quality Circles and the 
           time and cost requirements involved in the implementation 
           of Quality Circles will be discussed.
 
Problem:   Proper integrated circuit packaging type identification and
           applications are crucial to electrical system design and 
           repair.

Revision:  Identifying the proper type of packaging for integrated 
           circuits is crucial to the design and repair of 
           electrical systems.
 
Problem:   Cerebral-anoxia-associated neonatal period birth injuries
           can lead to epileptic convulsions.

Revision:  Birth injuries associated with cerebral anoxia in the 
           neonatal period can lead to epileptic convulsions.

Revise redundant phrasing

Redundancy in writing can come about from these three sources (but there are probably plenty more):

Here are some classic examples of wordy set phrases and their revision:

     in view of the fact that                since, because
     at this point in time                   then
     it is recommended that                  we recommend
     as per your request                     as you requested
     in light of the fact that               since, because
     being of the opinion that               I believe
     in the near future                      soon
     during the time that                    then
     it would be advisable to                should, ought
     due to the fact that                    since, because
     in this day and age                     now, currently
     for the reason that                     since, because
     in my own personal opinion              I believe,in my opinion
     to the fullest extent possible          fully
     in accordance with your request         as you requested
     four in number                          four
     predicated upon the fact that           based on
     inasmuch as                             since, because
     pursuant to your request                as you requested
     in connection with                      related to
     take cognizance of the fact that        realize
     it has come to my attention that        I have learned that
     with reference to the fact that         concerning, about
     with regard to                          concerning, about
     in close proximity to                   near, close, about
     to the extent that                      as much as
     in the neighborhood of                  near, close, about
     until such time as                      until
     has the ability to                      can
     that being the case                     therefore

Revise weak expletives

If you were around for Watergate, the term "expletive" means something specific to you (in the tapes and transcripts of Nixon's staff, many expletives had to be "deleted"). In this context, however, the term expletive refers to variations of there is and it is. This is not to say that it is always wrong to use these phrases in sentences, but they can easily be misused or overused. Like redundant phrasing, they add more words than are needed, and more words blunt the meaning, create a fog around the sense of a sentence. Here are some examples and their revision:

Problem:   When there is a very strong build-up at the front of the
           plane, it is what is known as a shock wave.

Revision:  When a very strong build-up occurs at the front end of 
           the plane, a shock wave occurs.
 
Problem:   When there is decay of a radioactive substance, there is
           the emission of some form of a high-energy particle—an 
           alpha particle, a beta particle, or a gamma ray.

Revision:  When a radioactive substance decays, some form of a 
           high-energy particle—an alpha particle, a beta particle, 
           or a gamma ray—is emitted.
 
Problem:   It is the results of studies of the central region of the
           M87 galaxy that have shown that there are stars near the 
           center that move around as though there were some huge mass 
           at the center that was attracting them.

Revision:  Recent studies of the central region of the M87 galaxy 
           have shown stars near the center moving around as though 
           some huge mass at the center were attracting them.

Revise weak passive-voice sentences

One of the all-time worst offenders for creating unclear, wordy, indirect writing is the passive-voice construction. It's easy enough to convert a sentence from active voice to passive voice, and back again:

Active:    The student wrote the report.
           
Passive:   The report was written by the student.

However, the passive voice can be a shifty operator—it can cover up its source, that is, who's doing the acting, as this example show:

Passive:   The papers will be graded according to the criteria stated
           in the syllabus. (Graded by whom though?)

Active:    The teacher will grade the papers according to the 
           criteria stated in the syllabus. (Oh! that guy...)

(It's this ability to cover the actor or agent of the sentence that makes the passive voice a favorite of people in authority—policemen, city officials, and, yes, teachers. But save that for some other course!) At any rate, you can see how the passive voice can cause wordiness, indirectness, and comprehension problems.

Passive:   Your figures have been reanalyzed in order to determine 
           the coefficient of error.  The results will be announced 
           when the situation is judged appropriate.

Active:    We have reanalyzed your figures in order to determine the 
           range of error. We will announce the results when the 
           time is right.
 
Passive:   Almost all home mortgage loans nowadays are made for 
           twenty-five years. With the price of housing at such 
           inflated levels, those loans cannot be paid off in any 
           shorter period of time.

Active:    Almost all home mortgage loans nowadays are for 
           twenty-five years. With the price of housing at such 
           inflated levels, homeowners cannot pay off those loans in 
           any shorter period of time.
 
Passive:   After the arm of the hand-held stapler is pushed down, 
           the blade from the magazine is raised by the top-leaf 
           spring, and the magazine and base 

Active:    After you push down on the arm of the hand-held stapler, 
           the top-leaf spring raises the blade from the magazine, 
           and the magazine and base move apart.
 
Passive:   However, market share is being lost by 5.25-inch 
           diskettes as is shown in the graph in Figure 2.

Active:    However, 5.25-inch diskettes are losing market share as 
           the graph in Figure 2 shows.
 
Passive:   For many years, federal regulations concerning the use of 
           wire-tapping have been ignored. Only recently have 
           tighter restrictions been imposed on the circumstances 
           that warrant it.

Active:    For many years, government officials have ignored federal 
           regulations concerning the use of wire-tapping. Only 
           recently has the federal government imposed tighter 
           restrictions on the circumstances that warrant it.

Don't get the idea that the passive voice is always wrong and should never be used. It is a good writing technique when we don't want to be bothered with an obvious or too-often-repeated subject and when we need to rearrange words in a sentence for emphasis.

Revise subject-verb mismatches

In dense, highly technical writing, it's easy to lose track of the real subject and pick a verb that just does not make sense. The result is a noun physically not able to do what the verb says it is doing, or some abstract thing performing something nitty-gritty real-world action. Here are some examples and their revision:

Problem:   The causes of the disappearance of early electric 
           automobiles were devastating to the future of energy 
           conservation in the U.S.

Revision:  The disappearance of early electric automobiles destroyed 
           the future of energy conservation in the U.S.
 
Problem:   Presently, electric vehicles are experimenting with two
           types of energy sources.

Revision:  Presently, research on electric vehicles involves two 
           types of energy sources.
 
Problem:   Consequently, the body is more coordinated and is less
           likely to commit mental mistakes.

Revision:  Consequently, workers will be more coordinated and commit 
           fewer mental errors.

Revise sentence-length problems

When you are writing about highly technical subject matter, it is easy to construct long sentences that become hard to read. The military standard for many years has been 17 words per sentence. Other standards allow up to 25 words per sentence. It's not that sentences can't be significantly longer or shorter than these standards—it's just that the average ought to stay somewhere within the 17- to 25-word range. However, any sentence over 35 or 40 words probably needs to be broken up. And while an occasional short sentence (say, 5 to 10 words) can be very effective, lots of them can cause writing to be choppy and hard to follow.

Breaking up overly long sentences is fun—it's a lot like throwing things away or tearing something down (it appeals to our destructive urges). Take a look at these examples, before and after:

Problem:   In order to understand how a solid, liquid or gas can be
           made to give off radiation in the form of a laser beam, one
           must understand some of the basic theory behind laser light.

Revision:  A solid, liquid or gas can be made to give off radiation 
           in the form of a laser beam. Understanding this process 
           requires some knowledge about the basic theory behind 
           laser light.
 
Problem:   Laser beams, which have many properties that distinguish
           them from ordinary light, result from the emission of
           energy from atoms in the form of electromagnetic waves 
           whose range in most laser beams is 10-3 to 10-7 meters.

Revision:  Most laser beams are just beams of light but which have 
           properties that distinguish them from ordinary light. 
           Laser beams result from the emission of energy from atoms 
           to form of electromagnetic waves. The range of 
           electromagnetic waves found in most laser beams is 10-3 to 
           10-7 meters. 


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This information is provided and maintained by David A. McMurrey. For information on use, customization, or copies, e-mail hcexres@io.com.