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Stressing what is important in a sentence

In addition to expunging the usual collection of wordy phrases from documents, editors commonly attempt to tighten up writing to make it more direct, clear, and concise. For example, when editing business and technical material, I frequently change sentences containing “it is,” “there is,” and “there are.” Writers often ask me “what was wrong with that sentence?” I reply that although the sentence wasn’t wrong grammatically, such phrases distract the reader from the important part of the message.


(Many of these examples contain other wording that can also be improved, and some could be rewritten more elegantly in context, by changing other sentences as well as these.)

No: There is a fee of $150 for this course.
Yes: The fee for this course is $150.

No: There are still some outstanding functional issues.
Yes: Some functional issues are still outstanding.

No: There are versions of Product X that can run under both UNIX and Windows NT.
Yes: Some versions of Product X can run under both UNIX and Windows NT.

No: There are a number of pre-requisite projects that are already scheduled and funded.
Yes: A number of pre-requisite projects are already scheduled and funded.

No: There are some pre-requisite activities that need to be undertaken.
Yes: Some pre-requisite activities need to be undertaken.
Better: (Choose one that fits the circumstances)
We need to undertake some pre-requisite activities.
(or) The client needs to undertake some pre-requisite activities.
(or) You need to undertake some pre-requisite activities.

No: We believe that there are deficiencies with the current security implementation.
Yes: (Choose one that fits what you are trying to stress: the security implementation or the deficiencies) We believe that the current security implementation has deficiencies.
(or) We believe that deficiencies exist in the current security implementation.
(or) The current security implementation has deficiencies.

No: There are navigation buttons at the bottom of each screen.
Yes: Navigation buttons are at the bottom of each screen.
(or, depending on the context) Use the navigation buttons at the bottom of each screen.

No: If there is more than one enrolled user for the account, see…
Yes: If more than one user is enrolled for the account, see…

No: There are three main areas available for data storage: (followed by bullet points)
Yes: Three main areas are available for data storage:

No: There are various security areas within the T: drive: (followed by bullet points)
Yes: The security areas on the T: drive are:

No: There are several customised stationery items for the office.
Yes: The office uses several customised stationery items.

No: Tours will be arranged so there is no interruption to normal system maintenance or testing procedures.
Yes: Tours will be arranged to avoid interruption …
(or, depending on context) Arrange tours to avoid interruption…
(or) We will arrange tours to avoid interruption…

No: There are a number of reasons for this decision: (followed by several bullet points)
Yes: The reasons for this decision are:

No: It is difficult to package equipment for transportation.
Yes: Packaging equipment for transportation is difficult.

No: It was easy to learn the new procedures.
Yes: Learning the new procedures was easy.

No: It is for this reason that we suggest…
Yes: For this reason, we suggest…

No: There are many applications that use this device.
Yes: Many applications use this device.

You get the idea. There examples were not difficult to change, but some other uses of “there is,” “there are” and “it is” are more complicated to fix; changes usually involve rewriting more than the sentence in which they appear.

Some of the examples above were taken from documents I have edited recently, others from an excellent guide to better business and technical writing style, John A. Brogan’s “Clear Technical Writing” (McGraw-Hill, 1973),
ISBN 0070079749

The book is divided into parts titled Removing Redundances, Unleashing Verb Power (using active voice, replacing weak verbs with stronger ones), Using Lean Words (getting rid of ponderous writing), and Stressing What is Important. Brogan’s principles apply to many forms of business writing.

(Brogan has written another book, “Grab Your Readers’ Attention & Hold It for Powerful Government, Technical & Business Writing”, which was published in September 2002 by Brogan Clear-Writing Seminars, but is unavailable through ISBN 0966075404.)

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Last updated 3 June 2002