How to increase audience engagement by varying your writing style

Varying sentence structure and length is key to maintaining reader interest

Do you ever get bored or even sleepy when reviewing a proposal? Have you ever found yourself at the bottom of a paragraph, but you can’t recall what it said? I know I have.

If we feel that way, with only one proposal to read and a vested interest in improving the proposal, imagine how your customer feels. Your customer has stacks of proposals to assess. Further, many evaluators aren’t directly invested in the resulting contract; they were just assigned to help get the evaluation done. Given these conditions, it’s easy for reviewers to tune out.

The last thing we want to do is provide a poorly written proposal to evaluators whose attention is already slipping. We want to avoid monotonous writing that lulls readers to sleep like the rhythm of riding a train. Instead, we should achieve a writing style with bursts of speed, exciting turns, and pauses for reflection and absorption.

Two ways to engineer interest into our writing are sentence structure and sentence length.

Sentence Structure

There are three basic types of sentence structures: simple, compound, and complex.

  • simple sentence is an independent clause with a single subject and verb. “Our on-site team will develop the software” is a simple sentence.
  • compound sentence is one sentence with two independent clauses combined by a coordinating conjunction (such as and, for, but, and others). For example, “Our on-site team will develop the software, and our remote team will test it” is a compound sentence.
  • complex sentence has two clauses connected with a subordinating conjunction. Whereas in a compound sentence both clauses could stand on their own as simple sentences, in a complex sentence one clause wouldn’t make sense as its own sentence. One clause is always subordinate to the other.

For instance, “Our on-site team will develop the software before our remote team tests it” is a complex sentence. The independent clause “our on-site team will develop the software” could be its own sentence (as we saw above). The dependent clause “before our remote team tests it” can’t stand as its own sentence.

Simple Our on-site team will develop the software.
Compound Our on-site team will develop the software, and our remote team will test it.
Complex Our on-site team will develop the software before our remote team tests it.

 

Talking about dependent and independent clauses may sound like grammar gobbledygook, but it’s important to recognize sentence structures so you can vary them in your writing. Too many simple sentences makes your writing choppy and juvenile, but too many compound or complex sentences decreases readability. To keep readers interested, find balance and variety of sentence structures in your writing.

Sentence Length

In addition to sentence structure, consider the length of your sentences and how that affects the readability of your documents. When people aren’t confident writers, they often resort to writing longer sentences with bigger words in an attempt to seem sophisticated. Unfortunately, this tactic actually makes writing harder to read.

The industry standard for professional writing is to aim for a 6th or 7th grade reading level. Writing at the 7th grade reading level doesn’t mean your writing has to be boring or overly simple. In fact, Hemingway’s classic The Old Man and the Sea is written at a 4th grade reading level! (Fun fact: this blog post is written at the 9th grade reading level).

Follow these instructions to determine the reading level of your document in Microsoft Word. If your reading level is too high, revise your writing so that your average sentence length is about 20 words and replace long words with shorter alternatives.

Applying these concepts

The real magic of reader engagement is the combination of variety in sentence structure and variety in sentence length. We tend to think of simple sentences as very short and complex sentences as very long (and complex!), but the opposite can be true for both. To illustrate, considering the following sentence:

Our on-site team of developers will build the XYZ software on ABC platform within 60 days in accordance with all regulations specified in section 5.2 of the RFP and with the customer’s SOP.

That sentence is 33 words long, but the sentence is still a simple sentence with only one subject. Similarly, the sentence below demonstrates how compound and complex sentences can be short and direct:

Our quality control board will review the monthly report before the PM submits it to the COR.

That complex sentence was only 17 words, nearly half the length of the simple sentence above.

As you revise your writing, look for ways to vary your sentence length and sentence structures. Don’t worry about these principles on your first draft—it’s more important at that stage to get your ideas organized on the page. As you refine the writing, look at each paragraph to assess the length of the sentences and how they are structured. If you find an especially long compound sentence, split it into two simple sentences with a good transition phrase. At the same time, don’t be afraid of the occasional long sentence. The variety of short, long, simple, complex, and compound sentences will keep your reader engaged and attentive to the text.

 

Julia Quigley has worked on a variety of Federal Health IT task orders and large federal proposals. With a Master’s in Rhetoric and Composition, she has created proposal writing strategies and conducted training to help technical subject matter experts (SMEs) understand how to respond clearly and compellingly to solicitation requirements. Prior to joining Lohfeld Consulting Group, Julia managed proposals for small and mid-sized federal contractors and taught introductory writing and persuasive writing classes at Texas State University. She applies the lessons she taught as well as lessons learned to all her writing and training projects.