Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

How to Make Your Sentences Shorter

I have clients who make comments to me like, "Dostoyevsky [or another famous — often Russian — 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 20th century: 23 words
  • Today: 14 to 18 words

Just be aware that all these numbers refer to averages.

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 ProWritingAid (free for articles of 500 words or fewer) but there is also Count Wordsworth.

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 understand."
  • "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. ProWritingAid will help you with this task as will the Hemingway Editor,which will highlight the passive in bright green. (Just be sure to ignore this software's mistaken argument that ALL long sentences are a problem. Again, the only problem is an average that's too long.)

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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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of Your Happy First Draft. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Friday June 26th, 9:34 AM
Comment by: Sam T. (Tucson, AZ)
This piece is worth printing and pasting to my wall! Solid Gold!
Tuesday June 30th, 1:16 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for your kind words, Sam. I'm astonished by the number of writers who pay almost no attention to sentence length! It's such an important edit to consider.

Equally, I'm amazed by the people who believe that ALL sentences need to be short. (This incorrect idea is exemplified by the Hemingway editor, which suggests that all long sentences are a problem.) No! The issue is BALANCE!
Sunday July 5th, 6:16 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
Thank you Daphne, good balanced advice.

This may also relate to the demise of the semi-colon, so beloved by Edward Gibbon and others of his age!

I've found the same problem with the Yoast SEO and readability tool for WordPress, although a few short sentences will bring down the average fast.
Wednesday July 8th, 1:37 PM
Comment by: BernardoAlfredo (Santiago de Chile Chile)
Thanks.
Really new and valorable for me
Thursday July 16th, 1:17 AM
Comment by: Keith A.
Thanks for these points and the software recommendations!
Monday July 20th, 10:18 AM
Comment by: Claire H.
Remember the Five W’s rule from journalism class? The lede must include Who What When Why where and for bonus points How. Those clunky sentences make me cranky. But how to re-educate journalists and copy editors?
Tuesday July 21st, 1:06 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Glad many of you are finding this advice to be helpful.

Claire, your comment about journalism is spot on. In the '80s, many journalists started to take more of a story-telling approach to their writing. As a result their ledes were much easier to read. (I seem to recall there was even a news service that would offer TWO ledes from which newspapers could choose -- a tradition W-5 one and a story-telling one.)

When I'm editing I always pay extra attention to the first sentence because it really sets the tone for the rest of the story. And if readers are turned off by the first sentence, guess what? They're not going to read any further!
Wednesday August 19th, 11:02 AM
Comment by: Judy (Waukesha, WI)
Shortening my sentences is a challenge, even when I'm writing a letter to a friend. I like using semi-colons; I often reread my sentences and find that many would be better as two separate sentences. Thanks for the reminder and suggestions!

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