A visit with your writing coach: Keeping sentences short

In this segment of Tips From a Writing Coach, we’ll discuss the first of our writing tips: Keep sentences short.

Over the centuries, accomplished writers have agreed that less is more. Samuel Butler said a century ago that it was “easier to be long than short.” And another quotation—variously attributed to Cicero, Voltaire, Pascal, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway—goes: “I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.” Whoever first said it, they’re all correct.

But brevity is a lot easier recommended than executed. Bear in mind that the period is one of the reader’s (and the writer’s) best friends. Generally, when a sentence approaches 20 words or so, we should seek a way to end it. Remember, however, that sentence length average is more important than the length of any one sentence. Aim for a wide variety of sentence lengths. Variety not only makes your writing conversational but it also helps avoid tedium. That said, a safe average is 20 to 25 words. That means you’ll have short sentences (as short as one word), medium-length sentences (12 to18 words), and longish sentences (18 to 25 words).

But word count doesn’t tell the whole story. Let’s repeat the sentence that ended my last statement, for example. That sentence has 21 words and should be OK. Here’s the sentence: That means you’ll have short sentences (as short as one word), medium-length sentences (12 to18 words), and longish sentences (18 to 25 words).

Although that sentence has, as I said, only 21 words, it qualifies as a “difficult” sentence because of its numbers and its parenthetical interruptions. Those elements have a lengthening and muddying effect because they disturb the natural sentence flow of subject to verb to object.

Does this mean that I mustn’t write that sentence? No, it doesn’t. Does it mean that I need short, crisp sentences before and after? Yes.
Now, notice the ploy I just used. Instead of making the passage even more complicated by surrounding the difficult sentence with equally difficult sentences, I instead asked short, simple, conversational questions—Does this mean I mustn’t write that sentence? Does it mean I need short sentences before and after? Those short questions allow me to answer with even shorter sentences: No, it doesn’t. And: Yes. That kind of pacing adds pause and the oral equivalent of “white space”—which gives the reader a rest. That kind of pacing also is more interesting because it adds variety—the kind of variety natural in speech.

Before we go on, let’s mention a software tool that will help you judge the simplicity of your own writing. Microsoft Word, which you probably use, has a readability index that measures the sentence length average of a piece of writing, its grade level, and its “reading ease.” (This readability index tool is usually in your computer’s grammar checker software. You can turn it on in Word’s “preferences,” and it will appear on your screen automatically after you’ve run the grammar- or spell-checker.) Now, we know we’re looking for a sentence-length average of below 25. Beyond sentence length, studies show that most readers—even the highly educated—prefer to read at a 10th-grade level or below. We also learn that a suitable score on the “reading ease” index is above 60.

So let’s see what this Word software has to say regarding the readability of this somewhat technical commentary you’re listening to. My remarks to this point have an average sentence length of 15, a reading grade level of 7.9, and a “reading ease” index of 65. We also find that the average number of characters per word is 4.6. So my short words—as well as short sentences, low grade level, and reading ease index—should ensure a simple and accessible writing style.

Therefore, what I’ve written so far should be clear. However, let’s note that you’re not reading but hearing. The demand for brevity and simplicity is even more critical for a listening audience. After all, listeners can’t look back at the spoken sentence; they must rely on memory. So, for speeches or other oral presentations, we should perhaps meet even more stringent demands for brevity and simplicity.

Am I suggesting that you analyze every sentence you write the way I just analyzed one of mine? No. But if you’ve never discovered where your writing “style” resides, it would be good to find out. Is your sentence length average typically 25 words, or 50? Is the grade level of your writing the 10th grade, or the 20thgrade—that is, 8 years in higher education? Is your “reading ease” score 60, or 30? All this information can be yours with the click of a computer mouse.

Again, the goal of these readability tools—as well as of my writing tips—is to craft prose so quick and natural that the reader understands with a single reading. No need to re-read. No need to puzzle out the writer’s intent. In other words, no need for the readers to do the writer’s work. Much besides sentence length goes into that kind of readability, but other considerations aside, long, dense sentences always make fuzzy reading. I won’t try to prove the point by reciting to you a long and densely written passage. Trust me: You wouldn’t like it!

By Paula LaRocque

Paula LaRocque, one of America's foremost writing coaches, is an author, editor, and communications consultant. She has conducted writing workshops for hundreds of media, government, academic, and business groups across the United States, Canada, and Europe. She has also been a writing consultant for the Associated Press, the Drehscheibe Institute in Bonn, and the European Stars & Stripes in Germany.

She has been a columnist for the Society of Professional Journalists' Quill magazine for more than 20 years. Her commentaries air regularly on National Public Radio in Dallas. She is also the author of three books on writing.

Since leaving The Dallas Morning News in 2001, Paula has been writing fiction and has completed the first two of a mystery novel series. Currently, she's a member of the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Inc., and the Dallas-Fort Worth Writers Workshop.