Short sentences to improve your written comms
Here’s one simple change you can make to improve the quality of your written comms. Try writing short sentences.
According to research*, the number of words in your sentences affect your reader’s comprehension. For sentences with:
- 8 or less words, readers understand 100%
- 14 words, readers comprehend 90%
- 43 words, readers pick up 10% or less
If you’re seriously interested in communicating your message, this is serious stuff. Because most people like to write sentences ranging between 20 and 40 words. Which means they are not successful in communicating their message.
Biggest writing challenge in business
I see this all the time when reviewing people’s business emails and documents. It continues to amaze me that most people squeeze their messages into 25 or 35+ word sentences. So, I spend a lot of my review time persuading professionals to limit their words.
Yet surprisingly, that is a hard sell!
That’s because most people are brought up thinking that writing is all about impressing their reader with complex grammar, big words, and …long sentences. They think this approach shows a mastery over that makes them look authoritative and accomplished.
The problem is that they forget that their written comms is not about them as a sender, but about their message and its purpose. Instead of looking at themselves they should be looking at their audience to understand how best to get their message to the audience.
Writing comms in perspective
It’s all about perspective.
If writing comms well is all about making you look and feel good… you’ll naturally end up with fancy words and long sentences. Which is nice, but not great if it means a lot of people won’t get your message.
If writing comms well is all about getting a message to an audience, then you’ll end up with something that may not work for you personally. (You might think it’s “below you” to write so simply.) But your written comms will work for your audience. Then there will be a greater chance of your message being understood and producing a response in line with its purpose.
Writing Short Sentences
So how do you shorten sentences? This is not the place for a detailed treatise, but here a few tips to get you thinking:
- Aim to have sentences with 12 to 17 words – this a good measure of readability
- Eliminate unnecessary words when editing your draft – if you can remove a word without changing the sentence’s meaning then it is unnecessary
- Use active sentences (focus on actions and actors) when writing – an active writing style uses a lot less words than a passive style
- If you discover a long sentence in your draft, look for a logical break and turn it into two sentences
A final word
Remember that this simple guideline helps you improve your readability so that people get your message. You can be pretty sure that if your sentences are over 20 words it will be harder to read. You’re reader is less likely to get all of your message.
Yet keeping the sentence length between 12 and 17 words does not necessarily make a good sentence. You can still make grammatical errors and have a clunky construction with 15 words.
You’ll find that most people write naturally long sentences without giving it another thought. Most of these will also be passive sentences.
So, take this suggestion and apply it when editing your draft before someone else sees it. Don’t worry that your first draft has things in it you don’t like. Let your review clean that up. As you regularly apply this in your review process, you’ll find it seeping into your natural writing process. Instead of writing naturally long sentences, you’ be writing naturally short sentences.
Here’s to your communication success!
*“Readers’ Degree of Understanding,” American Press Institute.