Reading time: About 4 minutes
Shortening sentences — or, at least editing longer ones — is a great trick for making your writing more accessible to more readers…
When I lead a writing workshop with a sizeable group of engineers or business people, I notice that many of them write sentences that are way too long.
What’s too long?
The answer may surprise you.
Measure in averages rather than absolutes
You want an average sentence length of just 14 to 18 words. Some people argue with me when I make this suggestion. They think they’ll end up sounding like the dumb reading books we used back when I was a student in grade school.
In those days, the main characters were always white, of course, and their names were Dick and Jane. They had a dog named Spot and the plot development featured mind-numbing plot twists like, “See Dick run.”
Perhaps because of the trauma of early exposure to such works, many writers don’t understand the value of short sentences. In fact, I always have clients who say things like, “Dostoyevsky [or any other famous author] wrote long sentences and everyone praised him for it. Why can’t I?”
Well, you can, but are you convinced you can write as well as Dostoyevsky? And even if you can, are you aware that even as general literacy has increased, our ability to read and understand long sentences has decreased over the last four centuries?
I posted about this decline several years ago, but here’s a summary of how preferred sentence word-count length has evolved…
- Pre-Elizabethan times: 50 words
- Elizabethan times: 45 words
- Victorian times: 29 words
- Early 20th century: 23 words
- Today: 14 to 18 words
For this reason, you don’t want your sentences to be like the girl in the photo at the top of this page — desperate to grow taller.
Not ALL long sentences are problematic
That said, not every long sentence needs to be short. The best writing always shows a variety of sentence lengths, ranging from 60 words to as few as one. You simply should attend to the average. And there’s no need for you to calculate this number yourself.
Instead, use an online tool to help you. I’ve road-tested most available pieces of software doing this, and I favour ProWritingAid. It costs (I am not a reseller), but it’s not expensive and there is a free version you can use for up to 500 words. I also like no-cost Count Wordsworth. (Words per sentence is the second measure on the chart.) I no longer like the Hemingway App because it regards every long sentence as a problem, which is untrue.
If your average is more than 20, here’s how to shorten your sentences:
Split super-long sentences in two
Here is an example, as easy as simply adding an extra period in the middle of the sentence:
- The government can now better understand the potential location and impact of where the biggest earthquakes will occur within a 1.5 million square kilometre area and is using the information to assess and prioritize seismic upgrades at its facilities. (39 words)
- The government can now better understand the potential location and impact of where the biggest earthquakes will occur within a 1.5 million square kilometre area. [25 words] It is using the information to assess and prioritize seismic upgrades at its facilities. [14 words]
Cut redundant words
We’re often inefficient with our language, using more words than necessary. Consider the following phrases:
- “Circle around” can become “circle”
- “Write down” can become “write”
- “Added bonus” is simply a “bonus”
- “Get to the point as quickly as possible” is really “get to the point”
- “Close proximity” is “close”
- “During the course of” is “during”
Focus on cutting
out unnecessary words and you’ll be using a relatively easy way of trimming your sentence length.
Adverbs clutter up your copy. You can usually live without them. Here are some examples:
- “That’s usually a good thing to do.”
- “That’s fairly good coffee.”
- “I totally agree”
- “Actually, I disagree.”
Just delete all those italicized words and you’ll be able to shorten your sentence.
Use the active voice
We sometimes fall into the passive voice, where the “actor” of the sentence goes into hiding. Here is a famous example:
- Mistakes were made.
Who made those mistakes? We don’t know! Thus, the sentence is passive. The only good thing about this example is that it’s short!
Typically, however, passive voice makes sentences longer, usually including a clause with the word “by.” For example,
- The man was bitten by the dog. [passive voice – seven words]
This sentence is easier to read and understand if you shorten it by making it active:
- The dog bit the man [active voice – five words]
If you make the habit of preferring active voice, you’ll usually have shorter sentences. Given that it’s sometimes challenging to identify passive voice, I usually like to let software do the work for me. ProWritingAid does a good job of identifying passive voice.
Avoid words ending in –tion
What do the words “creation,” “rumination,” “abbreviation” and “collaboration” have in common, besides ending in –tion? They all started their lives as perfectly good verbs:
But when you turn them into nouns you need to add a new verb to the sentence to make it work. Usually, this verb is boring, like “to be” or “to do” or “to make.” Instead of adding these unnecessary words, try to return to the original verb. Here’s an example:
- He wrote on architecture in collaboration with John Betjeman.
- He collaborated with John Betjeman, writing about architecture.
I like to use my search key (Command + F on a Mac) to look for words ending in –tion. Whenever I find one, I work to see if I can turn it back into a verb.
Strive to add additional shorter sentences — really short ones
If you ever want to drive down an average, add some items that are dramatically shorter, less expensive, or less significant. With writing, you need some sentences with a one-to-five word-count. How do you do that?
I just did!
“How do you do that?” is a five-word sentence. And, “I just did” is a three-word one. Here are some other super-short sentences you can consider:
- Why not?
- What’s going on?
- What happened?
Always try to work some of these super-short sentences into your writing, and you will see your average tumble to more reasonable levels.
Learning to shorten your sentences is one of the best tricks you can use to turn yourself into a dramatically better and more effective self-editor.
This is a substantially updated version of a post that first appeared on my blog on Feb. 13/18.
My video podcast last week aimed to take the mystery out of sticky sentences. Go here to see the video or read the transcript, and you can also subscribe to my YouTube channel.
Do you shorten your sentences? What’s your favourite trick for doing it? 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 March 31/23 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, 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. It’s easy!