How to make your sentences shorter

Reading time: Just over 3 minutes

Writing shorter sentences — or, at least editing your longer ones — is a great trick for making your writing more accessible to readers…

I’m editing my next book now and it’s probably going to take me at least another couple of months to wrangle this many-headed hydra. Among other tasks, I’ve changed the title. Formerly, Your Crappy First Draft, the book now has a new working name. (Sorry, I need to keep it a secret until closer to release day but I promise I’ll tell you first.)

In addition to playing with titles, I’ve also focused on cutting out unnecessary words and trimming my sentence length. And when you’re editing your own work, you should do this, too. I teach writers how to make sentences shorter in workshops I lead, and I’m often surprised by the hard time many people have implementing this advice. Why is it so tough?

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 several years ago about this decline but here’s a summary of how preferred sentence length has evolved over time….

  • Pre-Elizabethan times: 50 words
  • Elizabethan times: 45 words
  • Victorian times: 29 words
  • Early 20thcentury: 23 words
  • Today: 14 to 18 words

For this reason, you don’t want your sentences to be like the girl in the photo above — desperate to grow taller/longer.

That said, not EVERY long sentence needs to be short. The best writing always shows a variety of sentence lengths, ranging from as many as 60 words to as few as one. You simply should attend to the average. And there’s no need for you to calculate this yourself. Use one of the many no-charge online tools. I like Count Wordsworth. (Words per sentence is the second measure on the chart.)

If your average is more than 20, here’s how to make those sentences shorter:

Split super-long sentences in two

Here is an example, as easy as simply adding an extra period in the middle:

  • 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)

becomes

  • 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” 

Avoid adverbs 

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
  • Actually, I disagree.”

Just delete all those italicized words and your sentences will be shorter. 

Use the active voice 

We sometimes fall into the passive voice, where the “actor” of the sentence (the person performing the verb) is hidden. 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 dog bit the man [active]

Becomes

  • The man was bitten by the dog. [passive]

If you make the habit of preferring active voice, you’ll usually have shorter sentences. And, by the way, it’s sometimes challenging to identify passive voice so I usually like to let software do the work for me. The Hemingway App does a good job of this (at no charge), highlighting the passive in bright green.

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:

  • create
  • ruminate
  • abbreviate
  • collaborate

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 a boring one 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 replace it.

Strive to add a few super-short sentences 

If you ever want to drive down an average, add some items that are dramatically shorter, less expensive or less significant. In the case of writing, you need some one- to five-word sentences. 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:

  • How?
  • Why?
  • When?
  • Why not?
  • What’s going on?
  • What happened? 

Always try to work some of these super-short sentences in to your writing and you will see your average tumble to more reasonable levels.

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My video podcast last week aimed to help people who are trying to improve their written fluency in a second language. See it here and 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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Do you work to shorten your sentences? Why or why not? 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 Feb. 28/18, will be put in a draw for a copy of The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau. 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.

Posted February 13th, 2018 in Power Writing

  • christopherwills

    Great blog subject. I’ve always thought that cutting is the best way to edit. I know you didn’t say it but in case any of your readers have a misconception Hemingway is not an example of someone who always writes short sentences. His longest sentence was 424 words and occurs in a short story “Green Hills of Africa”. I believe the short sentence idea came from his boss when he was training as a journalist. A good book to look at for reducing words is “The Word-Loss Diet” by Rayne Hall. It’s only a short book but it contains a huge amount of work to do on a manuscript with its suggestions of words to remove.

    • Yes, and the Hemingway App has contributed to this misperception. It treats every long sentence as a problem when long sentences are sometimes valuable for the variation and rhythm they give our writing. Thanks for the book recommendation. I hadn’t heard of it but will take al look for it now.

  • Thohidul Karim

    Thanks Daphne for the topic. I am often find myself writing long sentence and later when i read it, I discover many mistakes. The advice you have given will be great help for current writing.

    • The other great thing about short sentences is that it’s much harder to make grammatical mistakes with them!

  • Wendy Kalman

    I’ve never aimed to cut the average or keep every sentence short, but to cut what is extraneous. I also want my writing to flow well. To that end, no matter what kind of writing, I like to “read it aloud” in my head. Helps me hear the rhythm. And adjust accordingly.

    I think you do the same. Inserting the short sentences here and there gives punch and emphasis. Makes the read pause and take a breath. And hopefully, think.

    • Abby

      Reading aloud is something I do too! It really helps.

      • Good suggestion, Abby! If you regularly have to gasp for breath when you’re reading your text, that’s a sign that some of your sentences are too long.

    • Yes, I do the same. But I also explicity check my sentence-length average. It’s a useful quick way for me to know if I’m on the right track.

  • Abby

    This is by far the best “news you can use” in my email today. I am writing for clients who can’t resist adverbs and qualifiers. Sometimes my work comes back for revision all cluttered with comments, murky additions, and strange edits in Track Changes, in so many colors that I think the document has sprouted flowers. Collaboration (which I use here consciously) tries my patience.

    The clarity of this post shines through the fog. Thanks again, Daphne!

    • You’re very welcome, Abby. Collaborative editing can be very challenging. I try to discourage my clients from using track changes and, instead, ask them to TALK to me about any problems they have with my copy. (Your typical person would not dare to question an accountant about a spreadsheet; it always amazes me to see how many people view themselves as experts on writing, however.)

  • Michael Katz

    That. Was. Totally*. Helpful.

    *remove

  • Luci McKean

    I’m reasonably good at writing short sentences but appreciate these tips. For better readability, I’d encourage others to vary the length and style of their sentences and paragraphs. Sometimes a single-sentence paragraph is indicated to drive home an important point.

    Thanks for these tips, and for your giveaway!

    • Glad you found my post useful, Luci. You make an excellent point about the importance of variation in sentence length. As I said above, the occasional 60-word sentence is perfectly okay as long as you balance it off with some one- to five-word ones.

  • Daniela

    It is funny how we were taught to create complicated phrases in order to demonstrate our comprehension of the language but in the end it just proves useless. It actually helps more and saves time and effort for both yourself and the reader to keep the message clear and concise. Makes perfect sense. Why complicate our lives unneccessarily?
    I love reading your posts, Daphne! Thank you for sharing your experience!

    • Thanks for your kind words, Daniela. To my way of thinking, long, complicated phrases NEVER demonstrate superior comprehension of language. Instead, they just reveal someone who hasn’t learned to self-edit!

  • LJ

    The best “writing teacher” I ever had was a three-month internship on a community newspaper. The editor was merciless and forced me to unlearn academic-style writing.
    Tool-wise, I’ll sometimes use the Mac tool that checks percentage of passive sentences in my work. Thanks for your other suggestions, Daphne—will try those too!

    • And, I suspect, you were a diligent student of this writing teacher. Keep up the good work, LJ!

  • Jagadish Kumar

    Had the effect of attending a free grammar class. Only you could do this, our dearest Daphne.

    I have a request for you. I want to know why it is considered proper saying, ‘We made him say this’ rather than, ‘We made him to say this?’ Expecting your lucid reply. Thanks a lot in advance.

    • I’m not a grammar expert, Jagadish. I suspect, however, it relates to the nature of the verb. “We made him say” would be a compound verb, with the “made” directly linked to the “say.” The rule may be different in other languages. I’m hoping there’s a reader of my blog who can dive in here and give a better grammatical explanation.

  • Rory

    Excellent!

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