How to Keep Web Texts Short (Part 2): The Sentence Level

2007-11-28 12:05 |

Generally, what accounts for the content or surface level of a text has to be reflected in the sentences, too. Thus, in order not to overtax the users and to meet succinctness, many authors (see Book recommendation / advertisement: Buy this book at! Kilian 1999, Book recommendation / advertisement: Buy this book at! Lackerbauer 2003) have recommended using simple sentence structures: “Convoluted writing and complex words are even harder to understand online.” (Nielsen 1998)

Writing simple sentences means using main clauses predominantly and avoiding the extensive use of subordinate clauses. See the following example:

‘Our band sold about 100,000 records last year, due to the numerous fans to whom we would like to say ‘thank you’!’


‘Our band sold about 100,000 records last year. We say thanks to all our fans!’

The first sentence is rather complex, which means it is harder to read and somewhat wordy. The example shows that such a sentence can easily be split up into two main clauses that still have the same message but with fewer words and increased readability.
Consequently, simple sentences must not necessarily mean poor information, and they should thus rightly be used on the Web.

I shall provide two more ideas of how to manage sentences being short but precise. One hint may be to avoid using the passive voice. According to Book recommendation / advertisement: Buy this book at! Kilian (1999), the problem with passive voice is that it simply means more words, too. ‘Our band sold about 100,000 records last year’ is eight items; ‘About 100,000 records were sold by our company last year’ is ten. Of course, one may sometimes really want to keep attention to the act (the selling), and not to the actor (the band), but as long as active voice serves our needs, we should try to stay away from using the passive.

Another idea presented by Book recommendation / advertisement: Buy this book at! Kilian (1999, p 45) is to opt for strong verbs over weak ones. The author has explained that business writings often tend “to take a good, strong verb and turn it into a noun or phrase – and then to put a weak verb in its place”. See the following examples:

‘make a decision’ vs. ‘decide’,
‘make use of’ vs. ‘use’,
‘by application of pressure’ vs. ‘by pressing’,
‘perform a test’ vs. ‘perform’,
‘make a comeback’ vs. ‘come back’.

It is plain to see that the first phrases are longer, whereas each equivalent says the same but with fewer words. Even if longer phrases may sound rather professional, Web writers should opt for the shorter versions unless they have some urgent reason to write longer texts (see Book recommendation / advertisement: Buy this book at! Kilian 1999). Clearly stating what one is trying to say may be even more impressive to the user. A Web site visitor will often be asked to click on a hyperlink to move to another page. A clear and precise statement on what one expects the user to do may also have an effect on whether the user will interact or not:

‘Buy now!’ vs. ‘Add to shopping cart!’

Published by Christian Kuhn


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