Writing Style – Do you treat your readers like sheep?

If not, you should.

C.S. Lewis once said, “I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road, if there is any gate to the left or right, the readers will most certainly go into it.”

This statement is particularly true in the world of business writing. As our readers are impatient, pressed for time, and overloaded with things to be read, they skim documents. As a result, they often jump to conclusions. If the writer has not taken time to explain him or herself clearly, readers will often take “the wrong gate.”

Here are six tips to ensure your reader gets the right message quickly.

1. Keep your sentences short. The ideal average length is about 18 words. There will be fewer opportunities for misunderstanding.

2. Use verbs over nouns. It will shorten your sentences and make them more powerful.

Example (Original)

We intend to bring it to completion by the end of the quarter.

Example (Revised)

We intend to complete it by the end of the quarter.

3. Be precise in what you need from your readers. Tell them what they are going to see and what you want.


I’d like your input on the following five recommendations I wish to present to the board. As my presentation is later this week, can you get back to me by Wednesday?

4. Get to your main point quickly. Avoid starting with a “bed time story.”

Example (Original)

Last week I attended a seminar in Winnipeg. It was highly informative.

Example (Revised)

At last week’s seminar in Winnipeg, I learned of new scheduling software that would make our salespeople more productive.

5. Keep your paragraphs short. Lengthy paragraphs intimidate a busy reader. Keep paragraphs to less then eight lines in a print document and less than five lines in an email. The first paragraph in any business document should never exceed three to four lines.

6. Provide subconscious reading instructions to the reader by using connecting words. Examples of connecting words are in addition, however, first, therefore, and in conclusion. In informal letters and emails, you may use and and but. These words help receivers to read documents faster and to quickly understand your thought processes.

These simple rules will keep your sheep/readers on the path you want them to take.