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I struggle with writing an awful lot and would like to improve. One of my main problems (and the reason why writing seems to take me a very long time) is that I seem to be unable to write in shorter sentences and my sentences become very convoluted. It seems as if I always start writing from the 'end' of a sentence rather than building up to the main point. For example, I am currently writing a report on a scientific experiment I conducted, and I found myself writing the following sentence:

Considering the likely greatest source of error, had there not have been time constraints that made it not possible to take measurements by increasing the thermal emf temperature slightly, allowing the temperature of thermocouple and thermistor system to equilibrate, before increasing the temperature again, it would certainly have been a better idea to use these slow increases in temperature.

It is just very convoluted, not clear, and I don't think it even makes grammatical sense.

I would be grateful to know if there are any techniques one can use, or exercises to do, that would help someone to get in the habit of writing in shorter sentences, writing more clearly, and writing faster. I am grouping these together here because I think they often (though definitely not always) come together as one problem.

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    Pretend that English is a foreign language to you and you do not know how to combine phrases. Write separate, simple, subject-verb-object sentences. (Yes, words will be repeated from one such sentence to the next.) Consider combining them only later, if at all. – Drew Dec 30 '16 at 1:59
  • There are several good books that help to solve precisely this kind of writing problems. For my graduate students, for example, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams makes wonders. – I.M. Dec 30 '16 at 10:29
  • I was just about to recommend the same book as I.M. That in combination with a lot of practice. I often wrote stories on the side of my graduate studies just to practice clarity, which I can still struggle at! – Tallima Jan 5 '17 at 18:28
  • You are correct that it doesn't make grammatical sense. :) – MissMonicaE Jan 9 '17 at 19:31
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    @MissMonicaE perhaps. It seems that when I need to produce something that will be judged on how it is written (a college essay,application form, scientific report etc) I just get stuck. Although I used to struggle with this even when writing the simplest of emails. Perhaps it also has to do with gaining confidence of your own internal 'voice' and just putting it done on a page, and not second guessing every word/sentence choice. When I am very frustrated with myself (as I was when I was writing the above post), I seem to write much more clearly and coherently. – 21joanna12 Jan 9 '17 at 23:38
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The sentence that gets away from you is almost always the result of starting in the wrong place. Look at the first clause in your sentence. Everything that follows has to align with that clause, both semantically and syntactically. If it starts off in the wrong place, it is going to require and long and convoluted construction to get to the last clause.

What makes a sentence like this difficult is actually not so much its length, as that none of what it is saying makes sense except in the context of what it says last. So look at the last clause of the sentence. This is where it was trying to get to, when it started from the wrong place.

So what is the right place to start from to get to where the sentence is actually going? In a surprisingly large number of cases, the right place to start is actually with what you have said in the final clause.

Yes, the statement you make in the final clause requires some supporting detail. That's okay. There is nothing that says that the support detail has to come first. In fact, I don't care about the supporting detail until I know what it is supporting. So start with the plain statement of what you want to say as a simple sentence. Then write other sentences that supply the supporting detail.

And this, in fact, is the classic definition of a paragraph. When a sentence gets as long as a paragraph, it is often because it is trying to do the job of a paragraph. So make it a paragraph. Find the central idea and lead with it. Then supply the supporting detail.

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Syntactic convolution is the result of nesting to many, too long, or too complicated sentences into other sentences. To untangle the convolution, simply take the structure apart. Form individual sentences. Reconnect them in sequence. Use repetition, pronouns, or sentence connectors to connect them.

Using your example:

  1. Original

Considering the likely greatest source of error, had there not have been time constraints that made it not possible to take measurements by increasing the thermal emf temperature slightly, allowing the temperature of thermocouple and thermistor system to equilibrate, before increasing the temperature again, it would certainly have been a better idea to use these slow increases in temperature.

  1. Parts

Frame 1: The likely greatest source of error is ...

Insert 1: Time constraints made it impossible to take measurements by increasing the thermal EMF temperature slightly.

Insert 2: Increasing the thermal EMF temperature slightly would have allowed the temperature of the thermocouple and thermistor system to equilibrate, before increasing the temperature again.

Frame 2: It would certainly have been a better idea to use these slow increases in temperature.

  1. Sequence

Time constraints made it impossible to take measurements by increasing the thermal EMF temperature slightly. Not taking these measurements is likely the greatest source of error. It would certainly have been a better idea to use slow increased in temperature. Slow increases in temperature would have allowed the temperature of thermocouple and thermistor system to equilibrate, before increasing the temperature again.

  1. Reconnected

Time constraints have made it impossible to take measurements by increasing the thermal EMF temperature slightly. This is likely the greatest source of error. It would certainly have been a better idea to use slow increased in temperature, because these would have allowed the temperature of thermocouple and thermistor system to equilibrate, before increasing the temperature again.

This is still inelegant, but I don't understand the context of this passage and do not know what you want to say, so that is where I must stop. I'm sure you can polish this further. Also, you might want to choose a different sequence, depending on how this passage connects to what surrounds it.

  • This is definitely the best solution. Break the thought down into pieces and add them back slowly. Reconnect in different places, and don't try to force one sentence to hold too many thoughts. – Lauren Ipsum Dec 30 '16 at 3:43
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I'm going to try giving you some advice, without using a lot of English Major jargon, because even as an English Major myself, jargon confuses me at times.

What I do is write the sentence out. After that, I look to see how many commas I have, and replace each comma, with a period. If it doesn't make sense, add, or remove a few more words until it becomes a shorter sentence.

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You might find the Hemingway App useful. From the description:

Hemingway App makes your writing bold and clear.

The app highlights long, complex sentences and common errors; if you see a yellow sentence, shorten or split it. If you see a red highlight, your sentence is so dense and complicated that your readers will get lost trying to follow its meandering, splitting logic.

You paste in your text and it'll guide you make it better by highlighting long or hard-to-read sentences, words with simpler alternatives, adverbs (*), and passive voice. If you clean up all these things, you'll be in a much better place.

(*) Also follow Stephen King's advice on adverbs: kill them all.

  • PS. I have no affiliation with the site mentioned, I just like it. – coco9nyc Dec 30 '16 at 5:05
  • I was going to suggest reading some actual Hemingway. – Dronz Dec 30 '16 at 5:13
  • I don't know about Steven King, but Stephen King wrote something quite different about adverbs. – DaG Dec 30 '16 at 10:14
  • Spelling fixed. – coco9nyc Dec 31 '16 at 7:08
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The best way I know of to improve this technique is to study writers who have mastered the technique in question. In your case, it might help to read published papers (ideally on a similar topic) to understand how other writers communicate their findings. Reading is often the best way to hone craft.

In my personal experience, I find that using simple and compound sentences works best to communicate complex ideas effectively, as well as ensuring that I understand the material I am writing about. Often times, when I don't understand the material enough, my writing becomes convoluted in an attempt to mask this deficiency. So, I always ask myself what I want the reader to know. In your case, what about this error is pertinent for the audience? Answer questions like this in bullet form. Then, combine these points effectively into clear sentences. I find that this process isolates the main ideas and gets rid of the "fluff" that simply does not need to be there.

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Consider writing using "ventilated prose." Separate grammatically coherent units (mental mouthfuls) into their own lines. This helps in a number of ways.

  • Hi, and welcome to Writers. Could you copy the relevant portions of the link, or at least some, into your answer in case of link rot? This will allow the answer to continue to be useful in the future even if the source page goes away. – Lauren Ipsum Jan 6 '17 at 0:13
  • I can find nothing on the page that bears quoting which would make sense without much of the surrounding text. It all boils down to what I said in my answer. The link is for the expanded version with (long) examples. – Tanath Jan 6 '17 at 0:28

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