Session 1: Keeping Sentences Short

An excellent first principle to focus on is keeping sentences short. Shorter sentences are easier for readers. Long sentences – even when grammatically flawless – require a lot from readers. Business writers seem to forget that readers don’t know the point you’re making until they finish reading the sentence. With long sentences, readers must hold a lot in their head before making sense of the idea you’re presenting.

Another problem with long sentences is that they’re more likely to be grammatically flawed. And, when you write a long sentence, you increase the chance of creating confusion and ambiguity.

Ideal length?

How short? My rule of thumb is sentences should be under 25 words. I know, that seems like a lot of words – and it is. But, you’d be surprised at how many sentences in business documents are 30, 40, even 50 or more words long. Professionals often think that long sentences show off their expertise. Instead, it shows their laziness and lack of care about the reader.

So, any time your sentence spills beyond one line of type, take the time to check how many words it is. (It’s easy to check word counts in MS Word. All you do is highlight the sentence and in the lower left corner you’ll see the sentence’s word count.) It’s a bit time consuming to do for every sentence, but don’t skip this necessary step.

Any time you have a sentence that’s over 25 words – shorten it! Start by ruthlessly trimming unnecessary words. If that’s not enough, re-cast the sentence. Sometimes the easiest solution is to chop the sentence into two. Sure, you may have to repeat the subject of the sentence, but that’s a small price for clarity and ease of reading.

I challenge you to diligently focus on writing shorter sentences for a month. Do it for your readers – and for yourself.

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