Short Sentences Have Punch

Short Sentences Have PunchPhoto license / Photo was cropped to remove a caption


In The Art of Readable Writing, Rudolf Flesch said that average sentence lengths are getting shorter. This applies to all types of writing. Why would this be?

It’s the audience. Professor Pinhead can understand text written for Donny Dropout. Donny Dropout can’t understand text written for Professor Pinhead. To be popular, you need to write for all levels of reader.

This also applies to words. The longer the word, the more likely your reader will need to stop and figure out what you’re saying. When some readers stop reading, they’re done with your book. About 24% of readers never pick up a book again after they put it down.

William Strunk Jr. agrees with Flesch. In The Elements of Style, he said, “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

What’s so great about short sentences?

The longer a sentence, the more it sounds like a rationalization. That’s because lies often come with explanations. “I didn’t steal money from the tip jar because I was working out back.” The truth is usually simple. “I didn’t steal the money.” Those who tell the truth have more ordered memories because they only need to remember what really happened. Liars need to remember the truth and the lies. Thus, they tell longer stories.

Long sentences also sound like a salesman trying to convince you their product is great. Short sentences ring true.

A short sentence within a paragraph stands out. Short is easy to remember. A long sentence with clauses can be hard to remember because the complete thought can be lost when any one of its points is misunderstood.

A short sentence as the only one is also strong.

Use stand alone sentences for points you want the reader to remember. These work best when you’ve started with several points over the previous paragraphs. The summary point on its own then has a special punch.

While short sentences are great, even your long sentences could do with some abbreviation. There are several ways to cut the fluff.

How can you make your sentences shorter?

First, get rid of anything that doesn’t add to understanding.

Don’t repeat what’s already been said. “The fat man with the big belly…” A fat man will have a big belly. Just start with “The fat man…” “They put the wrecked car into the crusher.” Well, yeah, it would be a wrecked car. If it was a good car, that would be worth mentioning.

Clear up repetitive phrases. “She threw the letter in the burning fire.” Is there such a thing as a fire that doesn’t burn? “The long-winded politician…” Is there any other kind? “The crooked insurance company…” I think you’re seeing the point.

Get rid of adverbs and adjectives unless you really need them. He was a really old man.” should be “He was an old man.” Since you already said “he”, it can be shortened to, “He was old.”

A lot of useless words end in “ly”. “The cats were truly dead.” “She quickly processed the order.” “They were driving wildly all over the road.”

Adjectives are wasted words when they state the obvious. “The wooden baseball bat.” We would assume it was wooden. “She answered the ringing phone.” Would she answer it if it wasn’t ringing?

Another waste of words are the expletive constructions, “There are”, “There is”, and “It is”. There are ways to write shorter sentences without using them. You can write shorter sentences without them.

You can find words to cut everywhere

When you get used to cutting words and shortening sentences, you will start seeing places to cut in everything you read. Especially notice the start and end of sentences. These are often spots where useless words appear, if you know what I mean.

Now when you edit your writing, you should have a better idea what it means to “cut big, then small”. Cut chapters. Cut paragraphs. Cut sentences. Cut words. Concise writing is good writing.

Article by Ivan Izo.


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