Why all long sentences must come to an end

“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter”. This quote by Blaise Pascal (often misattributed to Mark Twain) says all you need to know about long sentences.
Claire Whelan
4 min read

It sounds unlikely, but short sentences are much harder to write than long ones. Writing short sentences requires you to understand your subject so well that you can distill it perfectly. Stay conscious of each and every word. Understand where you want emphasis. Switch from passive to active voice. Keep readability front and center.

Remember the birth of Twitter, over 10 years ago? The act of condensing thoughts into 140 characters was limiting, but also liberating. I recall staring at the screen, scratching my head for shorter synonyms. Trying to shave off a character or two. And then it always dawned on me – what I really wanted to say was so simple. I didn’t need so many words. And the message made more of an impact, because of its simplicity.

It’s the same when you’re communicating with customers. Long sentences breed complexity and confusion. Short sentences will resonate more.

Why we should avoid using long sentences

A longer sentence is harder to understand than a short one. Or, put concisely by Gov UK, “When you write more, people understand less”. When presented with a string of words, most people won’t be able to retain the writer’s thoughts from beginning to end. Especially if they’re unfamiliar with the subject matter. And, perhaps, the vocabulary or jargon used.

Take the example below from a credit card letter:

I refer to the earlier notice served in respect of your account as the arrears now amount to the sum shown above, you leave me with no alternative than to commence court action and details of your account have been referred to the company’s solicitor.

A 45-word sentence. Word soup. We split the sentence into four (and simplified some vocabulary). Now see if you can follow the train of thought more clearly:

I previously sent you a letter informing you that your account is in arrears. The arrears now amount to the sum shown above. You leave me no option than to start court action. Your account details have been sent on to our company’s solicitor.

The content is no more pleasant, but at least you’re now able to understand it. And, as a customer, you really need to understand it.

The Plain Writing Act came into force in 2010. It states that federal agencies must use clear government communication that the public can understand and use. A concept that we believe businesses must embrace. Unfortunately, research has proven otherwise. Our report into asset management firms’ content showed some shocking results. 100% of the companies we surveyed fail to stick within the recommended 5% average long sentence density.

A short history of long sentences

You don’t need to look far for examples of long sentences. Literature is full of them. History is full of them. Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club includes a staggering 13,955-word sentence. James Joyce’s Ulysses boasts a 4,391-word sentence. Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities starts with a 120-word sentence. And Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech includes the following 58-word sentence:

“I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification – one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

So it figures that long sentence use has been mistaken for a mark of intellect, of quality writing. And sometimes long sentences are absolutely appropriate. But Martin Luther King Jr.’s words wouldn’t have been as powerful without the simple short sentence refrain “I have a dream”. And isn’t that what we remember from his speech?

See, your customers are not giving your content the same attention they’d give Ulysses. They’re unlikely to pore over your terms and conditions, as they would a novel. You are not sharing your words with the passionate voice of Martin Luther King Jr. They’re consuming your content whilst doing a whole lot of other things. The school run. Grabbing a coffee. Filing taxes. Cognitive load theory says that our brains have limited working memory to process information. Using long sentences makes content harder to digest, and adds to customers’ mental load. In many cases, this could result in your customers missing important messages from you.

Fixing long sentences

Having established that it’s time to cut our long sentences short – how do we go about this? While there’s no one formula, these tips should help.

One thought, one sentence

If you find that you’re using lots of commas and sub-clauses – stop. Your ideas are probably getting confused, and the reader will be lost. Stick to expressing one thought in each sentence. It’s also a nice exercise in figuring out what you really want to say.

The US Government’s Plain Language website recommends:

“Express only one idea in each sentence. Long, complicated sentences often mean that you aren’t sure about what you want to say. Shorter sentences are also better for conveying complex information; they break the information up into smaller, easier-to-process units.”

Bullet points are your best friend

Instead of listing things in a sentence, look to bullet points. They’re easier for the eye to scan, and give your individual items space to “breathe” on the page.

“At the activity center, you’re welcome to swim, play and run”vs

“At the activity center you can:

  • swim
  • play
  • run”

Use solutions to help you

It’s relatively easy to absorb these practices as a writer, it just takes a little time. But what if there are multiple people creating content for your company? Perhaps they’re not even trained writers… think of those lawyers creating terms and conditions and privacy notices. Solutions such as VT Writer flag long sentence use (amongst many other things) in your text. It saves time manually trawling through documents – so you can go in and fix the issues as they arise. You’re also able to benchmark performance over time and across your organization.

Use active voice

Swapping the active for passive voice allows you to communicate more clearly. It also takes up fewer words. You can read up on passive voice and how to avoid it here.

Rule of thumb: < 25 Words 

If you are looking for a rule of thumb, go with 25 words or less. And the UK Government agrees. They share this research:

Studies also show that sentences of 11 words are considered easy to read, while those of 21 words are fairly difficult. At 25 words, sentences become difficult, and 29 words or longer, very difficult.”

Long sentence density – The 5% guidance

Circling back to our title, ok perhaps we don’t need to put an end to all long sentences. A variety in sentence length makes for pleasant reading. But you should pay attention to the average, and keep it below 5%. Our research and work with customers show this as the ideal level.

And long sentence density is just one of the things to watch for in your content. There’s grade level, passive voice and even the words you use could make the difference. Words matter.


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