Sunday, March 15, 2009

How long is yours?

Sentence! How long is your sentence? (What were you thinking, Dennis?)

Writing is the one time you want "shrinkage." Consider this report from the Kansas City Star regarding its research on sentence length: "When reading sentences of 15 words or less, readers can comprehend 90% of what they’ve read. When reading sentences of 25 words or more, they comprehend only 62% of what they’ve read."

Yep, small is beautiful. If you write short sentences, readers will understand what you've written. Go above 25 words and they don't get it.

The renowned teacher of writing, Rudolph Flesch, had (something like) this to say about sentence length, "Sentences with 8 words or less are very easy to read. Those with 11 words or less are easy to read. Those with 14 words or less are fairly easy to read. Sentences with 21 words or less are fairly difficult to read. Those with 25 words or less are difficult to read and those with 29 words or more are very difficult to read."

What kind of writing is very difficult? Try this: "The Project implementation completion commenced in January and installation was accepted in November, or approximately 11 months to completion instead of the mandatory seven for a variety of reasons, among which the high turnover of top-level staff (including the Project manager) occupied a major role." Huh? Run that by me again.

What kind of writing is easiest? Comic strips. Why? They are mostly dialogue written in a small frame. What is easy? Danielle Steel. What is fairly easy? John Grisham. What is very difficult? "Scientific American." Should you write comics in business? I doubt it. But, you should also not write "Scientific American," unless you're writing to a bunch of scientific Americans.

So what is standard? 17 words. And, what publication typically models the standard? Right! The newspaper! When you write, model the newspaper. Use short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. Don't worry about having a long one, sentence that is. Go for the 8 to 17 word sentence. You'll make your readers very happy!


  1. Well said Ed...the simplicity part that is.

    I'd recommend John Maeda's "The Laws of Simplicity" as a guide.

    Here they are in brief:

    1. Reduce: The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.
    2. Organize: Organization makes a system of many appear fewer.
    3. Time: Savings in time feels like simplicity.
    4. learn: Knowledge makes everything simpler.
    5. Differences: Simplicity and complexity need each other.
    6. Context: What lies in the periphery of simplicity is definitely not peripheral.
    7. Emotion: More emotions are better than less.
    8. Trust: In simplicity we trust
    9/ Failure: Some things can never be made simple
    10. The One: Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.

  2. I couldn't agree more. After having come in contact with you, I think more and more about why people - smart people - end up writing badly. It comes down to writing to impress than to express.

    Our world is changing so fast. People are becoming increasingly competitive and also increasingly insecure. To show wealth, power, knowledge, and erudition - no less - with a tinge of exaggeration seems to be the norm. (if only compassion could have been included in the above list...)

    I am aware I might sound overly philosophical, but speech is after all a more conscious result of our mostly unconscious minds.

  3. Also to support Dennis' point at #7
    => songs!

    Short, sweet, simple and (most of the time) they get to you