November 21

One thing that’s guaranteed to drive your reader crazy: sentence length

    One thing that's guaranteed to drive
    Want to know what will drive your reader crazy to no end?

    You might be thinking of typos or subject-verb agreement or using the word “they” as a singular pronoun.

    Nope. Chances are that most readers won’t actually notice any of those errors. (Sad but true.)

    However, they will notice if your sentences are all the same length, and it will probably annoy the heck out of them. Take a look at your own writing, focus on one paragraph, and check the word count of each sentence in that paragraph. If every sentence is very short (less than 20 words) or very long (more than 40 words), you may have a sentence length problem.

    Why is a string of short sentences problematic?

    Reading too many short sentences back-to-back is frustrating because the reader ends up encountering the same concept from one sentence to the next, and, yet, the choppy flow makes it difficult to integrate new information about the concept across sentences. Let me give you an example. (I made these up, so the “results” are completely fictional.)

    “I ran a regression model on two variables, education and income. The data showed that education has a positive correlation with income. The results indicate that with each increased level of education, income increases an average of $20,000.”

    The first sentence is 11 words, the second is also 11, and the third is 16.

    Try reading all three of the sentences aloud. Do you hear the the choppiness? You can’t even get a good rhythm from one sentence to the next.

    When periods interrupt the flow so frequently, it’s difficult for the reader to find the connection between the concepts and integrate the information into one, cohesive picture. Each sentence requires the reader to start over understanding the objects (variables, education and income, increased level) and how they relate to each other.

    Contrast those three sentences to this one sentence:

    “I ran a regression model on education and income, which showed that not only did education and income vary together positively, but with each increased level of education, income increased an average of $20,000.”

    Since it’s one sentence, the reader knows that the concepts addressed by the sentence are education and income, and with each phrase the reader encounters in the sentence, he integrates the new information smoothly and easily.

    Plus, the longer sentence was 32 words – easier to read and 6 fewer words in the end.

    So, then, are long sentences better than short sentences?

    Not always. Sentences of 40+ words require the reader to hold several concepts and how they relate to each other in their minds for a long time.

    Hitting the reader the wave after wave of long sentences, with series of clauses and phrases strung along, never letting the reader take a break, and then adding a conjunction, just to make the sentence longer, leaves the reader gasping for air by the time he reaches the period.

    And that sentence was only 49 words.

    Imagine reading three or four of those suckers in a row. Exhausting. Most readers (even very smart ones) simply don’t want to drag their way through long sentences.

    And why would you, the writer, ask them to? Long sentences are not necessarily the best way to communicate. Your goal is to guide the reader through your ideas so that he understands them. The key word here is “guide,” not “drag” through long, windy sentences that bore the reader to death.

    If you find yourself writing sentences that are 40+ long or using conjunctions (“and,” “but,” “yet”) frequently, go back and see if you can break some of those sentences up.

    Okay, so, not too short, not too long, where’s the happy medium?

    I would never suggest that every one of your sentences should be 25-35 words long. You’ll need a variety of sentences, depending on what you’re trying to communicate in that moment. If you’re trying to explain the relationship between two concepts, you may opt for a longer sentence. If you want to drive an important point home, short sentences are often very powerful. The best writing intentionally uses a variety of sentences.

    Mostly, what I would encourage you to do is start paying attention. You probably already have a pretty good idea of which sections in your writing have too many short sentences or too many long sentences, it’s just that you don’t usually bother going back to revise them.

    Simply trying to avoid one extreme or another will certainly help you improve your writing.

    And your reader will be grateful.

    Which one is your crutch? Short sentences or long sentences?

    Mine is long sentences. I'm always having to go back and break up my long sentences, and I often have to remind myself to insert a shorter sentence to emphasize something important. What's your natural tendency?


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