Less is More: Write Better Sentences

If you’re an analytical nerd like me, you know every sentence can be dissected and labeled by its structure and included word types. For example, that first sentence’s structure was D,I: dependent clause, (comma) independent clause. The most basic sentence type is a simple sentence, or a single independent clause (I). For example:

I am a writer.

The above sentence is a simple sentence because it contains just one independent clause–meaning it has a subject and a verb and just enough other material to make the thought complete. If I haven’t lost you yet and you’d like to learn more about the various sentence structure types, check out this post.

How Many Words Should a Sentence Have?

When it comes to our sentences, statistics tell us shorter sentences are more likely to be understood. In one of my college textbooks (I’m an instructor at the local tech college), the average comprehension stats are:

  • 8 or fewer words, 100 percent
  • 15 words, 90 percent
  • 19 words, 80 percent
  • 28 words, 50 percent

As you can see, as our sentences get longer, they are less likely to be understood correctly. Sometimes when we’re writing, though, we just keep typing as the thoughts fill our head. We don’t always go back to make the necessary corrections. Even if we use perfect grammar to craft the sentences, they likely won’t be fully understood (and let’s not talk about run-on sentences that lose our audience completely).

Why do We Struggle So Much?

Why do you suppose this is true? I have a few theories. First, we tend to scan not read. Especially in today’s fast-paced digital society, we simply don’t have the time (or at least don’t make the time) to fully read anything. We scan it quickly, looking for the key points. If those key points, then, are lost in long, confusing sentences, the key points themselves get lost.

Second, we often don’t read in quiet, uninterrupted places. We’re surrounded by noise at the coffee shop, the office, on the subway, and even at home. All that external noise easily becomes a distraction. How often have you read an entire paragraph or page only to discover you had no idea what you just read?

Finally, the content we’re reading is often confusing at best. If the writing itself is poor to begin with, and then you add your own scanning style and surrounding distractions, it’s easy to see how we might not “catch” everything.

The Writer’s Job

As writers, then, it’s important for us to help our audience as much as possible. By keeping sentences AND paragraphs short, it’s easier to follow. From the stats I provided above, I recommend keeping most sentences to 19 words or fewer. Paragraph length should also be considered, though. I recommend keeping each paragraph to eight or fewer printed lines. Note that isn’t eight sentences but eight actual lines of text on the page/screen. Break up those long sentences and paragraphs!

We can also include headings and/or paragraph titles to help clarify even further. The use of mechanical emphasis (e.g. bold face, italics, color changes, etc.) also allows us to direct our readers to what is most important. Additionally, whenever possible and logical, text can and should be broken out of paragraphs and into bullet lists. *One note on that: numbered lists should only be used when sequence is important (i.e. do these things in this order). Otherwise, bullet lists should be used.

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