Last week, I attended the Inbound Marketing Summit. (You can read about my impressions here.) At the summit, a very intelligent and friendly person sat down with me at lunchtime. She had a number of questions. Among them was this: “What is one thing that I can do to make my content easier to read?”

Write shorter sentences. This is my single piece of advice. If you do only one thing, write shorter sentences.

By the way, here is how I was originally going to write the three short sentences above:

If I were to pick just one thing that you can do to make your content easier to read and, by extension, cheaper, easier, and faster to translate, it would be to write shorter sentences.

See how much easier my three short sentences are to understand than the 35-word sentence? The short sentences are also cheaper, easier, and faster to translate.

Hold on a minute, you say! Often, if we take one long sentence and break it in half, we end up with more words. More words means a higher cost for translation. So, how can it be cheaper to translate multiple short sentences?

The translation savings is not in the number of words. In fact, the true cost of translating long sentences is usually hidden, not monetarily quantified. Here’s what often happens when a translator encounters a long sentence:

  • Translator tries to understand the author’s intent.
  • Translator may ask for clarification.
  • Translator takes an educated guess as to the meaning of the long sentence.
  • Translator translates the sentence as accurately as possible.
  • Translated content goes to in-country reviewer for review.
  • Reviewer also takes an educated guess on the meaning.
  • Reviewer provides comments and sends them back to translator.
  • Translator makes another attempt at translating the long sentence.
  • Iterate with reviewer until the reviewer is satisfied.

Lather, rinse, and repeat these steps in as many languages as necessary. By the end, the process of translating the long sentence has wasted a lot of time for both the translator and the reviewer. Wasted time costs a lot of money. And wasted time can also mean delayed go-to-market, which costs even more money.

In addition, because the long sentence had to be interpreted and re-interpreted, it is possible that each translation has a different meaning. It is even possible that none of the translated sentences even resemble the author’s original intent!

I’m not saying that this scenario happens all the time. I am saying that if you keep your sentences short, the likelihood of wasting time and money, and ending up with different meanings is greatly reduced. I have never heard a translator complain about content having too many short, simple, and easy to understand sentences.

[Just so you know, every time I wrote a sentence in this post, I kept going back and counting the words. Writing short sentences is a learned technique to be sure!]

Val Swisher
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