Does your organisation publish reports that aim to influence senior decision-makers? Richard Cheeseman offers some advice.
- Avoid complexity
As I wrote in my last post, pressure to condense large amounts of knowledge in policy reports can lead writers to summarise to the point of obscurity. It may also create unwanted complexity, as in this example:
“Increases in biofuels production across the European Union, as some farmers in the EU replace food crops with crops for biofuels, are having profound implications for indirect land use change (the shifting of land-use impacts from one region to another due to conversion of land for other purposes) in developing countries, where the clearing and cultivation of marginal land to replace displaced EU food crops are leading to significantly higher annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as carbon previously trapped in the soil is released into the atmosphere in the form of CO2, which is one of the main GHGs.”
This sentence is complex and hard to understand because it is long and contains too many ideas, not because the ideas themselves are difficult.
How does a sentence like this come into being? Almost certainly it did not spring fully formed from the pen of a single author. More likely it grew increasingly complex as various people added their own ideas. So, the first writer might have written:
“Increases in biofuels production across the European Union are affecting developing countries, where cultivation of marginal land to grow food crops displaced from land in the EU is causing annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to rise.”
This was a relatively simple sentence containing two principal ideas in two main clauses. However, it expanded when the writer’s colleague added a reference to indirect land use change. A third colleague added the definition in parenthesis, and a fourth some information about carbon in the soil. And so they continued until the final bloated mega-sentence was created. This process will be familiar to anyone who has collaborated with others to write a detailed report.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong about working in this way. However, someone has to take responsibility for readability, which is diminished every time another subordinate clause is crammed into an already overloaded sentence.
For clarity in policy documents, my rule of thumb is that no sentence should contain more than three principal ideas, and preferably only one or two. Here is how I might edit the long sentence above:
“Increased production of biofuels in the European Union is causing higher annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in developing countries. Extra emissions are released when farmers outside the EU cultivate marginal land for the first time to grow food crops displaced by biofuels crops in the EU. This is called indirect land use change (ILUC). ILUC increases GHG emissions because the clearing and ploughing of uncultivated land releases carbon trapped in plants and soil. It enters the atmosphere as CO2, one of the main GHGs.”
The most important thing about this edit is that it reconnects two key ideas in the first sentence: that increased biofuels production in the EU causes higher annual GHG emissions in developing countries. This is the crux of the issue and needs to be stated first. ILUC is an important part of the story but the authors have allowed it to dominate the sentence. The new text is divided into five sentences, which helps the reader by making the ideas easier to process.
Summary: if a sentence contains more than three principal ideas, consider dividing it into two or more separate sentences.
Next post: 3. Avoid abstract language