[Post 11 of the DITA Loc Wire series] Shorter sentences are easier to understand for the reader and the translator. When writing for non-native speakers and translation, you can aid comprehension by limiting your sentence length to 25 or fewer words. Longer, more complex sentences create a cognitive load on the reader and require more effort to parse, which can lead to confusion, mistakes, or injury. Consider these examples:

Original:

To remove the cover assembly (9), first remove the four screws (10) that attached the cover (11) to the housing (12), and then, after taking the cover (11) off the housing (12), remove the preformed packing (13) and throw it away. (from ASD-STE100 spec, rule 4.1)

vs edited:

Remove the cover assembly (9):
1. Remove the four screws (10) that attached the cover (11) to the housing (12).
2. Remove the cover (11).
3. Remove and discard the preformed packing (13).

Original:

A smartphone is a cellular telephone that has an integrated computer and many other qualities, such as an operating system, internet browsing, as well as the ability to run software programs. (from ASD-STE100 spec, rule 6.3)

vs edited:

A smartphone is a cellular telephone that has an integrated computer and other features:
* Operating system
* Internet browsing
* Ability to run software programs

The Simplified Technical English specification (www.asd-ste100.org) is even more strict, recommending 20 words or fewer for procedures. Readability Monitor suggests, “Over the whole document, make the average sentence length 15-20 words, 25-33 syllables and 75-100 characters.”

Shorter sentences make translation more accurate and less expensive

Obviously, if the sentences are easier to understand by the translator, their translation will be more specific. The cost will also decrease because the Translation Memory will be more effective. In the first example above, the complete sentence provides little opportunity for leverage and reuse. After breaking it down, the chance of reuse increases. For example, many instructions likely contain “Remove the cover”, allowing it to be leveraged from Translation Memory and translated consistently.

Ways to Edit Long Sentences

Here are several ways you can edit sentences to make them shorter:

  • Use a bulleted list if you have more than three items. (Make sure you introduce the list with a complete thought.)
  • Avoid using semi-colons (;). Instead, break into two sentences at the semi-colon.
  • Use serial (Oxford) commas.
  • When using connecting words (such as and, but, then, thus), consider breaking the sentence at the connecting word.
  • Make sure each instruction contains only one step.
  • Use active voice, which shortens sentences.
  • Only present one thought per sentence.

How to Avoid Choppiness

Writers often worry that their writing will become choppy if they write shorter sentences. You can avoid this issue in these ways:

  • Vary the start of the sentences within a paragraph. For example, use dependent clauses or connecting words at the beginning or end.
  • Use bulleted lists. (Caveat: each item in the bulleted list should be grammatically parallel. It helps the reader remember the content. Each item in this list starts with an action verb, for example.)
  • Change the cadence by judiciously using adjectives and prepositional phrases.

Writing short sentences well requires creativity and thought.

Our Recommendations

  • Share this practice with your technical writers and include it in your style guide.
  • Consider implementing Simplified Technical English or another controlled language initiative (if you are authoring in English)
  • Use a Schematron rule to enforce sentence length in your authoring environment (e.g., Oxygen), and gradually decrease this limit to a lower number (e.g., 20 for a task and 25 for a concept). Later, you can increase the severity from warning to an error.

Stay tuned. A future post will highlight the benefits and practical implementation of STE.

Other Examples and Resources