Clear and to the Point

28 September, 2010

Beware overstuffed sentences

Filed under: editing — monado @ 07:21

If you’re writing to be understood, one of your most powerful techniques is to put one idea into each sentence. Here’s an overstuffed sentence explaining how stalagmites in caves can be used to calculate the ages of the caves and more. The introductory fact is, “Like trees, stalagmite contain seasonal growth lines, which vary in thickness according to the amount of water available.” But then comes this information overload:

The oxygen and carbon isotope ratios locked into the crystalline structure of calcites in each growth line also provide evidence for the prevalent temperature and the proportion of trees versus grasses in the local environment, respectively.

“Respectively” tells the reader, “You sort it out.” Here’s what I’d rather read:

Each growth line represents a year. The isotope ratios in the calcite crystal structure tell us more about that year. Oxygen isotopes (O16:O18) show the temperature. Carbon isotopes (C13:C14) show the proportion of trees to grasses in the local environment.

If you want someone to read and understand, sort out the ideas and make them flow.


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