5 Expert Tips for Writing Readable Sentences
For most of us, speaking comes easily - oftentimes much easier than when we're writing. The main reason for this is that writing and speaking are two very different ways of communicating. For example, if we were just, you know, sitting down for a cup of tea – like in the kitchen – and talking about, say what happened when I tried to get on the bus this morning, when this really rude guy shoved his way to the front and almost knocked this little kid over – like, and he literally almost fell on this other lady with a walker! I was, like, so ready to go off on the guy – but the bus driver didn’t even say anything. He was just like, ‘hurry up and get on’ or whatever. ‘Time’s a wastin’’.
More than a sentence or two of writing like that would either (a) melt your brain, or (b) put you to sleep. That’s why writers must pay close attention to average sentence length and readability if they want to capture and hold a reader's attention. Too-short sentences might come across as childish; too-long sentences could be confusing. What is the ideal balance? Here are a few tips from the experts that’ll help you make your sentences – whether fiction or nonfiction – more engaging and readable.
Robert Gunning looks to the masters
Robert Gunning, author of How To Take The Fog Out Of Writing, states that "Only highly skilled writers such as Charles Dickens and Thomas Wolfe can effectively write marathon sentences." He adds that "Even these writers limit themselves to 20 words or less per sentence." According to Gunning, in plain English, short sentences take preference over lengthy ones.
By the numbers with Jyoti Sanyal
Jyoti Sanyal, who wrote the book Indlish, goes into more detail on average sentence length and readability in a chapter called "Shrink or Sink." In this chapter, Sanyal quotes a survey done by a press association in the U.S. which found the following, "Readers find sentences of 8 words or less simple to read, sentences of 11 words easy, 14 words moderately easy, 17 words usual, 21 words somewhat difficult, 25 words challenging, and 29 words or more strenuous."
Martin Cutts on writing...
The Oxford Guide To Plain English author Martin Cutts clearly and colorfully states that "More people fear snakes than full stops, so they recoil when a long sentence comes hissing across the page." He recommends 15-20 words as the ideal sentence length.
...and word length
Cutts adds that "In addition to sentence length, word length should also be taken into consideration. For optimal readability, polysyllabic words might make a sentence difficult to understand. While words are measured in two units: letters and syllables, sentences are measured in three units: words, syllables, and characters." As a guideline, he recommends 15-20 words for an average sentence length, consisting of 25-33 syllables, holding 75-100 characters.
When in doubt, read aloud
In his book 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, Gary Provost recommends reading your writing out loud to get a feel for the flow of the text. "One short sentence after another might sound choppy and might get boring. Several long sentences will get confusing. You might not realize it when you're writing, but, when reading out loud and hearing these sentences, your ears will tell you." Provost recommends a short sentence followed by a medium length one, followed by a long one. He calls this technique "Writing Music."
In many ways, average sentence length and readability go hand in hand. Read your writing out loud. Does it flow? Does it have a rhythm that pleases you? Make a note if you stumble in places and check on your sentence and word length.
If it reads well out loud, there’s an excellent chance that your writing will be clear to your readers!