Writers dedicate years of their lives learning how to masterfully craft sentences that combine clauses in intricate ways to convey complex relationships between multiple concepts. Aside from being an essential element of communication, wordplay is an art. A writer’s proficiency can become a deterrent when writing web copy, especially for those with an extensive background in creative writing. Great writers can easily fall into the trap of writing sentences that can be difficult for the common audience to read despite being grammatically sound. Keeping sentence length under control is one of the best things a writer can do to ensure their writing is easily understood. The smaller screens on today’s smartphone and tablet devices (which make up more than 60 percent of web traffic) aren’t particularly friendly for displaying long-winded text blocks. The smaller screen makes it much easier for a reader to lose their place while scrolling through large blocks of text, so longer paragraphs by the construction of longer sentences can be a problem for readability. These six tips will help you keep your sentence length under control.
1. Aim for 25 Words
So, how long is too long? The common practice in news writing of keeping sentences at 25 words or fewer makes for a reliable expectation for desired sentence length. In most cases, 25 words is sufficient to get across one or two points without being too short or running too long. However, there are instances where you’re going to need more words to make your point. Once you reach the 30 to 35-word range, sentences start to feel long, so you’ll want to consider breaking things up. Sentences should never exceed 40 words.
2. Read Out Loud
Take a note from a speech writer and read your work out loud to yourself. Your sentence is probably too long if you find yourself taking a break to breathe before you reach a comma, semi-colon, or period. If the sentence sounds rough, try to say the same thing with fewer words or break up the sentence. Speaking out loud also will help you identify unnecessary words in your writing.
3. Alternate Between Short and Long Sentences
Writing that features a bunch of short sentences sounds choppy. Writing that features many long sentences grows winded and can be difficult to follow. However, alternating between short and long sentences lends writing a sense of rhythm, makes it easier to understand, and helps you avoid creating sprawling writing. It helps to aim for around 35 to 40 words between every other sentence to break up the flow. A short 10-word sentence leads into a longer 35-word sentence comfortably and a longer 25-word sentence gets a sense of closure when a 10-word sentence follows it. If you have three long sentences, break up the middle one. Your short and long sentences don’t have to adhere to a strict pattern, the biggest benefit comes from including the occasional brief sentence that serves as a breather.
4. Use Introductory Clauses Wisely
Unless you need them, unnecessary introductory clauses the like one in this sentence add words without value. A well executed introductory clause can make it easier to say something using fewer words. Cut the introductory clause when the sentence makes sense without it.
5. Use Set-off Clauses
Set-off clauses, or clauses within other clauses, are useful for combining two choppy sentences into one flowing sentence. These are great to use when dealing with a bunch of shorter sentences, but can backfire into incoherent tangents when used in already lengthy sentences.
6. The Semicolon is Both Friend and Enemy
Many massive sentences are born from the semicolon. It’s one of the most difficult punctuation marks to master, but it is incredibly useful for advanced writers. Like with set-off clauses, the semicolon is a great way to combine shorter sentences while conveying a strong conceptual relationship. The problem with semicolons is if they are used instead of a period you can end up with a massive sentence. You can treat both sides of the semicolon like independent sentences, but the two combined sentences can get muddled when they add up to more than 35 words.
While writers may find crafting long, thoughtful sentences fulfilling in a creative way, they’re not always the right option for a large audience. Keeping your sentence lengths under control will produce better copy for your customer and make life easier for your editor.
Dan S is a former news journalist turned web developer and freelance writer. He has a penchant for all things tech and believes the person using the machine is the most important element.