Avoid long parenthetical phrases
Quick! Where’s your verb?
For clarity’s sake, put it near the front of your sentence, right after your subject. It’s harder to follow sentences with delayed verbs, like this one, where the verb doesn’t show up until 28 words in:
“The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian), one of the largest mutual life insurers and a leading provider of employee benefits for small and mid-sized companies, today announced that it will cover 100% of the cost associated with the administration of the H1N1 vaccine for employees and their eligible dependents enrolled in a fully-insured Guardian medical plan.”
(And let’s not even discuss the fact that “cover,” not “announced,” is the real verb in this story.)
Don’t bury your verb under a long parenthetical phrase (let alone your whole boilerplate). Remember: You can always explain what your company is the leading provider of in a separate sentence.
Writing short, simple sentences is one of the top two ways to make your copy more readable, according to 70 years of readability research. Here are three ways to make your sentences easier to read by getting to the verb faster.
1. Write low-depth sentences.
High-depth sentences are harder to understand than low-depth sentences, found readability expert G. R. Klare in a 1976 review of 36 readability studies.
Depth refers to the number of words before the verb in a sentence. The deeper the sentence — the more words before the verb — the lower the comprehension. Twenty-two words, for instance, delay the verb in this sentence:
“Vital secrets of Britain’s first atomic submarine, the Dreadnought, and, by implication, of the entire United States navy’s still-building nuclear sub fleet, were stolen by a London-based soviet spy ring, secret service agents testified today.”
2. Limit dependent clauses.
Bob Baker, a deputy metropolitan editor at the Los Angeles Times and creator of Newsthinking, writes:
“As journalism became more sophisticated in the 1970s, and started trying to carve out a niche that TV could not compete with, the notion of ‘interpretation’ came more and more into play. You started to see more dependent clauses that defined the importance of a story, which is OK if the clause isn’t too long, like maybe 8 to 10 words. But in my newspaper, and others, the desire to make an important statement gets out of control sometimes and you can have a 40-word lead sentence that includes a 17- or 18-word dependent clause, and the reader’s head is likely to explode taking all that information in without a period.”
So limit your dependent clauses to eight to 10 words. Even better: Limit parenthetical phrases and other background information in your lead paragraph to six words or less.
3. Force the verb to the front.
And here’s a quick trick for pushing the verb toward the top of the sentence from Joseph M. Williams, author of Style: Toward Clarity and Grace:
“Run a line under the first five or six words of every sentence. If you find that (1) you have to go more than six or seven words into a sentence to get past the subject to the verb and (2) the subject of the sentence is not one of your characters, take a hard look at that.”