Good Sentence Structure


We recently published an eBook, Writing Strategies For Corporate America, and I wrote an Introduction explaining the motivation for the book, etc. Someone who downloaded it commented on one of the sentences in the Introduction, calling it "poorly worded." I certainly have no issue with this kind of feedback and, in fact, welcome it, as it provides an opportunity for a meaningful discussion of what can be considered "correct" and "incorrect" writing. The fact is that I know less about grammar than I probably should as a PhD in English; however, my expertise is in composition and rhetoric (that is, writing) and so I do know what readability studies tell us about writing and how readers interpret our sentences. And that, my friends, is what effective writing is all about: understanding your readers and how they read. This knowledge allows us, as writers, to make good decisions about sentence and paragraph structure.
The sentence in the Introduction that my colleague questioned is “However, the majority is based on what I’ve learned about the issues professionals in the workplace who are tasked with writing, but whose primary jobs are not writing, face.”  His contention was that the sentence should've been structured as "However, the majority is based on what I’ve learned about the issues professionals in the workplace face who are tasked with writing, but whose primary jobs are not writing." Both are correct; mine uses the non-restrictive clause "but whose primary jobs are not writing" (a non-restrictive clause is simply a group of words in a sentence that can be removed from the sentence and the sentence will still make sense; non-restrictive clauses use commas both before and after). My point was to write the sentence to subordinate the idea of their primary jobs not being writing. In other words, I felt that that was a less important idea than the notion that these professionals are tasked with writing and face issues because of this.
But my colleague's version is also correct; he just used a different structure. In fact, this sentence could be rewritten any number of ways, depending on what we want to emphasize. Since readability studies tell us that readers expect the first part of the sentence to be what is most important, my goal was to emphasize my expertise and knowledge of the subject. I certainly could've written the sentence as "Workplace professionals who are tasked with writing, but whose primary job isn't writing, face issues." Or "I've learned that professionals often face issues when tasked with writing that isn't part of their jobs." Or "When writing isn't part of a professional's primary job, that professional may face issues." Some of these are obviously better than others; the idea is that there's not just one way to write any sentence. 
The point is that we should be making decisions about how we write and why we structure our sentences and paragraphs as we do based on sound research about reading, which is knowledge most workplace writers don't have, but need. Focusing on how a sentence sounds or what we think is correct can be useful, but what's more empowering is to actually know how readers read and to use that knowledge to generate powerful sentences that compel our readers to read.  This type of information forms the foundation of the courses we teach because it's this kind of knowledge that creates long-term changes in how professionals approach writing tasks. Interested in learning more about writing effective sentences for your readers? Discover Hurely Write's professional writing courses to improve your teams writing.
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