A step-by-step guide to better sentence length

Reading time: Just over 4 minutes

Is your writing filled with long, winding sentences? Here’s a guide to achieving better sentence length….

When I talk about sentence length at workshops, people sometimes object to my advocacy for short sentences. “I don’t want my writing to sound like a grade school book,” they tell me. “My thoughts are more sophisticated than, See the dog run.”

Others say, “Dostoyevsky [or another famous author] wrote long sentences. Are you trying to tell me that he was a bad writer?”

Well, of course, I’m not! And I understand — and applaud — your desire to be a sophisticated writer. So, let me reassure you that I’m not trying to dumb down your writing. But before we decide you have a problem, let’s collect some evidence.

Go here and paste some of your text into the empty box. Hit the “process text” button and then look at the sixth item on the list of metrics. (It’s titled “average number of words per sentence.”)

What’s the number you want? Way back in 1893, English professor Lucius Adelno Sherman proposed the written word would be easier to understand if it matched the spoken word as closely as possible. In Victorian times, that was 29 words per sentence. In Sherman’s day, it was 23 words. Today, after decades of television and the Internet, experts such as Bob Elliot and Kevin Carroll, tell us the average should be somewhere between 14 and 18 words.

Does that sound too short to you? You may or may not be a fan of author J.K. Rowling — but you won’t likely see her work as overly simplistic. Her average sentence length is 12.

If your own average is somewhere between 14 and 18, your sentence length is just fine. Don’t change a thing, length-wise. Further, if you’re a grad student writing a thesis or an academic preparing a paper for a peer-reviewed journal, it’s okay to venture into the range of 20 to 23 words.

But if your average is any higher than that, you are probably writing too many long sentences. Here’s why:

  • If you are a corporate or freelance writer, no one is obliged to read your work. Thus, if you make your writing easy to read, rather than challenging or intimidating, more people are likely to read it. This outcome is what you and your bosses want, is it not?
  • If you are already a successful and widely published writer, feel free to ignore my advice. I’m not in the business of mending things that aren’t broken. But, if you are a relatively new writer, be aware that you don’t yet have the experience or the skill of a Dostoyevsky. Eventually, you may be able to write passages with a high sentence-length-average but don’t start that way. That would be like trying to perform a triple lutz on the day you began ice skating lessons.
  • There is no such thing as an “ideal” sentence length. The very best writing always shows a variety of sentences, ranging from very short (one word!) to rather long (as many as 50 words or even more). Why? A piece of writing’s sense of rhythm is enhanced by this variety. Further, the reader’s ability to understand a very long sentence will be influenced by the length of the other sentences around it. The problem is almost never the length of a single sentence. The trouble comes with the average. If you prepared a bar graph showing the number of words in each sentence in your piece of writing, it should look something like the image at the top of this post. Do you see how it resembles a city skyline with some low-level buildings next to some apartment towers? Short sentences should follow long ones. And long can follow short.

If your average is higher than it should be, go through your writing and try to shorten some (not all!) of the long offenders until your total piece of text hits the average of 14 to 18 words (20 to 23 for academics.)

I spent some time on the Internet to find some examples of long sentences that would benefit from shortening. I show them here in red and my rewrite in purple:

With our program, you get the benefit of 35 years of experience we’ve gained in solving problems churches face in an annual effort such as not reaching out to all members, lack of materials that encourage personal growth in giving, failing to follow up with members, and overdependence on donations from top donors. (53 words)

This 53-word sentence feels like my junk drawer — too much information crammed into too small a space. Be aware that the problem often occurs when writers have a list of items they need to convey. How to solve this conundrum? Put the list in its own sentence:

With our program, you get the benefit of 35 years of experience we’ve gained in solving church problems. (18 words) These issues include: an inability to reach out to all members, lack of materials to encourage growth in giving, failure to follow up with members, and overdependence on donations from top donors. (32 words)

To further improve the readability, you can even present the list as bullet points, like this:

  • inability to reach out to all members
  • lack of materials to encourage growth in giving
  • failure to follow up with members, and
  • overdependence on donations from top donors

By the way, I know that changing one 53-word sentence to two shorter ones doesn’t achieve the desired average but be aware that you can’t calculate an average based on only two sentences. To be confident you’ve hit the right sentence length, you need to examine the entire piece.

Here’s another long sentence:

A delegation of five American correctional officials went to Shanghai and Beijing, China from July 17 to Aug. 1 to promote awareness of international values and principles related to the safe and humane treatment of offenders. (36 words)

The problem with this sentence is that it rushes to present too much information. Solve the problem by splitting it up:

A delegation of five American correctional officials went to Shanghai and Beijing, China from July 17 to Aug. 1. (19 words) Their goal? (Two words) They worked to promote awareness of international values and principles related to the safe and humane treatment of offenders. (19 words)

Notice how the super-short sentence in the middle improves rhythm and flow and makes the meaning easier to understand.

Finally, here’s another example, showing a slightly different problem.

To determine the ending point of this context, we can select the parent node if it encloses the result section, otherwise we should specify another anchor which identifies the ending point of the context or have a common ancestor with the first anchor which encloses the section. (47 words.)

I must confess, I don’t even understand what this sentence is about. It appears to have something to do with electrical or computer engineering. Here’s how I’d make it more readable:

We must determine the ending point of the context. (Nine words) To do so, we can select the parent node if it encloses the results section. (15 words) If it does not, we must specify another anchor that identifies the ending point of the context. (17 words)

Interestingly, this text now runs the risk of too many short sentences in a row. If I were editing the entire piece here, I’d strive to add a really long sentence next, so as to eliminate choppiness and establish a more pleasing rhythm.

Finally, don’t fret too much over sentence length when you write. Instead, focus on it when you edit. Eventually, through force of habit, shorter sentences will start to emerge during your crappy first draft.

Welcome them when they come.

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My video podcast last week offered advice for academics about free writing  (see the transcript). Please consider subscribing to my YouTube channel.  If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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How do you deal with overly long sentences? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Aug. 31/17, will be put in a draw for a copy of The Email Warrior by Ann Gomez. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.