Readable Writing Rule #3: Short Sentences Are Sweet Sentences

Readable Writing Rule #3How many words does it take to express an idea?

The Lord’s Prayer is 66 words long.

The 23rd Psalm is made up of 118 words.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address contains 226 words.

The Ten Commandments are spelled out in about 300 words.

On the other hand, the “US Department of Agriculture Directive on Pricing Cabbage” is 15,629 words long! If length were all that mattered, the cabbage-pricing manual book would be a masterpiece.

It’s the weight of an idea or argument that counts, not its length

Your words don’t have to be big, your sentences needn’t be long, and your paragraphs don’t have to span several pages in order to impress your reader. In fact, most of the time you’ll make a better impression with modest sized words, sentences and paragraphs.

This sentence, for example, is way too long: “Work overload, which involves workers being required to perform too much activity in the allotted time frame, has been shown in many studies conducted in both government and non-government settings in several countries to cause increased gastric acid production, increased pepsin secretion and increased levels of serum pepsinogen, all of which may, acting either independently or collectively, lead to an inflammation of the lining of the upper gastrointestinal tract, a decrease in the ability of the mucosal barrier system to work, and, as a consequence, peptic ulcer disease symptoms in susceptible workers, with its attendant pain and epigastric tenderness.” (And yes, this is an actual sentence taken from a doctor’s report.)

That single sentence contains 98 words and several ideas, making it hard to follow.

The idea comes across much better in five sentences such as these: “Work overload occurs when workers are given too much work to do in the allotted time. This phenomenon has been examined in many studies conducted in several countries, involving both government and non-government settings. Results show that work overload causes increased gastric acid production, increased pepsin secretion, and increased serum pepsinogen levels. Individually and collectively, these increases may lead to an inflammation of the lining of the upper gastrointestinal tract and a decrease in the ability of the mucosal barrier system to work. In susceptible workers, this results in peptic ulcer disease symptoms, including the attendant pain and epigastric tenderness.”

Here’s another: “I am referring your grant proposal to our Grant Department, which reviews and processes proposals on a university-wide basis, since we have found through experience that this is the most expedient method, and for the additional reason that any one of our professional staff may be working on a proposal overlapping your own, and either an elimination of one, or a combining of two or more similar proposals, might be more efficacious.”

That’s another long sentence that defies easy understanding. It’s much easier to read and understand when written this way: “I am referring your proposal to our Grant Department, which reviews and processes proposals on a university-wide basis. Experience has taught us that sending all grants through this department expedites the process. It’s also an effective way to eliminate or combine overlapping proposals.” More sentences, fewer words, easier understanding.

There’s no law that says a sentence can only contain a certain number of words or ideas. So how can you tell if it’s too long? A sentence is too long if it contains so many words or ideas that it cannot be easily understood. Another rule of thumb: If it’s more than three lines long, it’s probably too long. When in doubt, read the sentence out loud to someone else. If he or she can’t easily follow the ideas, break the sentence up.

As an exercise, chop the following run-on sentences into bite-sized pieces:

  1. She became a hero in May, 1999, when she tackled a man who was shooting at customers in a market he was mad at because he had been fired by the market two weeks previously, and wanted to take revenge, so he put the lives of the customers at risk.
  2. The man went to Radiology, Inc., on March 23, 1981 for chest x-rays, which were interpreted by John Smith, M.D., who noted that the cardiovascular silhouette and mediastinum were normal, there were linear densities at both lung bases consistent with scarring and/or atelectasis, and there was no evidence of active cardiopulmonary disease, and there were no other abnormalities.
  3. The patient went to work for XYZ, Inc. in 1991, where he managed a store, working seven days a week, 70 hours per week, supervising 30 or more people at a time, and he also handled the payroll and payroll taxes, as well as hiring and firing and scheduling of vacations.
  4. She sought a new job from her father’s friend, who reminded her that she had been fired from six jobs in a row, that she had not graduated from high school and had called a previous boss a “slug” in front of all the other employees, and he said he would give her one last chance and enrolled her in his company’s training program.
  5. Ms. Roberta Roberts is a tall, blond, college-educated woman who runs her own travel agency and who seeks the company of a professional man who likes politics, the theater, and who likes to do the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle, and who enjoys Italian and Chinese food, which she loves to take out and eat in the park.

Here are possible reworkings:

  1. She became a hero in May, 1999, when she tackled a man who was shooting at customers in a market. The man was taking revenge on the market’s management for firing him two weeks previously.
  2. The man went to Radiology, Inc., on March 23, 1981 for chest x-rays, which were interpreted by John Smith, M.D. Dr. Smith noted that the cardiovascular silhouette and mediastinum were normal. There were linear densities at both lung bases consistent with scarring and/or atelectasis. There was no evidence of active cardiopulmonary disease, and no other abnormalities.
  3. The patient went to work for XYZ, Inc. in 1991. He worked seven days a week, 70 hours per week, managing a store and supervising 30 or more people. He was also responsible for the payroll and payroll taxes, hiring and firing, and vacation scheduling.
  4. She sought a new job from her father’s friend, who reminded her that she had been fired from six jobs in a row, had not graduated from high school, and had called her previous boss “a slug” in front of all of the other employees. He said he would give her one last chance, and enrolled her in his company’s training program.
  5. Ms. Roberta Roberts is a tall, blond, college-educated woman who runs a travel agency. She seeks the company of a professional man who likes politics, the theater, doing the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle and eating Chinese food in the park.

I’m Barry Fox, a New York Times #1 bestselling ghostwriter. I help executives, entrepreneurs, philanthropists and top professionals create top-notch memoirs and business books. I can also guide you through the self-publishing process. Call me at 818-917-5362.

Please follow and like us: