Christine Frank on Style Matters

My name is Christine Frank and I am an independent Canadian evaluator. I have a couple of questions for you. Do your reports intrigue your audience or send them for coffee? Do people grasp your message easily?

Although I am best known as a program evaluator, I have also taught courses on business communications and co-authored a textbook on that subject. Experts in business communications focus on dynamic, readable writing. Plain writing experts promote a similar style. Both areas of expertise afford simple strategies to make functional documents more inviting and compelling.

Evaluators sometimes hinder their effectiveness by writing in an overly academic style. For instance, in journal articles, you often find sentences 60 words in length or more. One of the pivotal rules of both business writing and plain writing is to limit sentence length. Even if readers have excellent reading skills and are grounded in the subject matter, you can construct your text to propel them forward, not slow them down. My own frustration in reading unnecessarily lengthy, wordy text drives me to strive for instant clarity.

Hot Tip: For evaluators, I suggest a maximum of 20 words per sentence. You might stretch this limit when a short sentence just won’t convey the message. However, another fundamental rule is to check your text to see if you have used the least number of words possible. If you do this, you may find you can achieve the limit. Many strategies can be applied to maximize clarity. One is to avoid an over-abundance of nouns, especially in sequence. In the following sentence adapted from an actual Request for Proposals, you will see eight nouns, five of them in a row.

  • Our first task is the development of a best practice guideline implementation evaluation plan.


  • First we will develop a plan for evaluating the implementation of best practice guidelines.

Hot Tip: A strategy that reduces sentence length and makes the text more compelling is use of the active voice of the verb.

  • The top three reasons given by students for choosing a career were successfully predicted by teachers.


  • Teachers successfully predicted students’ top three reasons for choosing a career.

Rad Resource: Federal Plain Language Guidelines (2011)

This contribution is from the aea365 Tip-a-Day Alerts, by and for evaluators, from the American Evaluation Association. Please consider contributing – send a note of interest to Want to learn more from Christine? She’ll be presenting as part of the Evaluation 2014 Conference Program, October 15-18 in Denver, Colorado.

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