Some things work best short.
- Simone Biles: 4’ 8’’, the undeniable GOAT (Greatest of All Time).
- Zoom Meetings: One hour tops, thanks.
- Hermia in Midsummer Night’s Dream: Though she be but little, she is fierce.
- Impactful sentences: some things work best short.
Every now and then, you’ll read a very long section of prose where the author chose not to use shorter sentences because they thought all the ideas in the sentence belonged together and there couldn’t possibly be a full stop between the ideas because that would be incoherent, and the reader would think that the ideas flowed well together because they were grouped altogether in the same, exceptionally long sentence.
There’s no need for long, meandering sentences. It’s confusing. And it’s dull. It’s like having a conversation with somebody that never pauses for breath. You can’t take in everything they’re saying. You’ve no space for your own thoughts between ideas. And you’re fantastically bored by the time they stop speaking.
Let’s embrace the most understated superpower – short.
Why is short your superpower in writing?
You may be aware of some of the challenges of shortness:
- Reliance on affable tall people in the supermarket to retrieve the fancy gin on the top shelf.
- Experiencing live music without ever seeing the band.
But in your writing, short is powerful.
Very long sentences take a lot of work to understand. Your brain is trying to remember how the sentence started, while following the train of thought to its conclusion. Shorter sentences are easier to understand. If you want to be clear, be concise. Our brains typically like to digest one idea in each sentence.
With one idea per sentence, each point makes an impact. You’ll dilute the first point by bleeding into the next idea in the same sentence. Allow your reader to feel the weight of your idea. Give each point its own sentence.
Your greatest emphasis lies at the start, or at the end of your sentence. You’ll lose that lovely emphasis at the start if you harp on too long. You’ll lose the emphatic end point if you’ve worked your reader so hard to get there that they’re just relieved it’s over.
Seize your emphasis. Keep it short.
How long is too long?
Any sentence with more than 23 words becomes more challenging for your reader to understand. Aim for an average of 16 words per sentence.
I’m not proposing that you laboriously count each word in every sentence you write. On your first proofread, look out for sentences that feel a little long. Double check the length with the “Word Count” function. If you’ve got some wayward wanderers over 23 words, pop in a helpful full stop and reword it.
You’ve also got some lesser-known readability statistics tucked away in Word. Access them in Review -> Editor -> Settings. In your Proofing settings, tick the box for “Check Readability Statistics”. The stats will pop up once you’ve done your editor check or your spell check.
If your average word count per sentence is in the teens, then you’ve written a piece that’s easy to understand. If you’re in the 20s or 30s, snap out your editing sheers and get chopping.
What are the common pitfalls?
Every now and then somebody tries to cheat the short-sentence system. They think these sneaky little tricks will carve out a loophole in that 23-word maximum rule.
Here are some grammatical grenades to your sentence clarity:
Don’t replace your full stops with commas. It’s like finishing a rousing rally call with a few ums and errs and demolishing all the impact of your speech.
We all need a comma every now and then. But if your sentence is snowballing into a 30 worder, perhaps you’ve been over-reliant on our trusty comma. Break it up with a full stop instead.
Hands up if you know how to use a semi-colon? Be honest. They’re the oft-disoriented cousin of the colon and most people are a little unsure where they belong.
You see them peppered through paragraphs willy-nilly. It’s another attempt to amalgamate multiple ideas into one sentence. Your paragraph will carry your idea, so there’s no need to shut your eyes and hope for the best with a plucky semi-colon.
Join the campaign to scrap the semi-colon! If you’re unsure, pop in a full stop and see how it reads. If it’s a coherent sentence, opt for the full-stop.
Here’s how to embrace short as your superpower:
- Keep your sentences shorter than 23 words.
- If a full stop works, use it. Don’t go faffing around with a comma or a semi-colon.
- Check your readability stats. If you’ve hit a 16 word per sentence average, your writing’s clear, crisp, and pleasingly readable.
Or if you’d prefer to outsource any of your writing, contact me for a quote. At 5’3’’ (160cm) I’m in the Hermia “small but mighty” copywriter category.
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