JS Tip 53: From the Writing Workshops: The Advantages of Being Short II

Last week, we talked about short words. This week, we’ll talk about short sentences. Next week, we’ll talk about short paragraphs. Ah, the joys of consistency.

Keep your sentences short. Keep your sentences to an average—notice that, an average—of about fifteen words. Shorter sentences are easier to write, easier to keep correct, and easier to read.

(So far, this tip has averaged about eight words per sentence. It’s not that hard.)

One hundred years ago, in the days of longer attention spans, American writer Henry James wrote sentences of fifty to sixty words. For example—

This person proved, on her presenting herself, for judgement, at a house in Harley Street, that impressed her as vast and imposing—this prospective patron proved a gentleman, a bachelor in the prime of life, such a figure as had never risen, save in a dream or an old novel, before a fluttered, anxious girl out of a Hampshire vicarage. (One sentence of sixty words. The Turn of the Screw, 1898)

In the mid 1920’s, a young writer named Ernest Hemingway changed all that:

We were in a garden at Mons. Young Buckley came in with his patrol from across the river. The first German I saw climbed up over the garden wall. We waited till he got one leg over and then potted him. (Four sentences totaling forty-one words. In Our Time, 1923)

Hemingway captured the interest of the reading public because he wrote sentences they could read, follow, and understand. Increased demands produced shorter attention spans. Shorter attention spans demanded shorter sentences.

The trend continues today. Keep your sentences short. The longer your sentences, the more you risk losing your reader.