Why write shorter sentences

By Jerry Bellune, Writing Coach

Short, punchy sentences are dynamite.

Clear and understandable, too.

Long sentences will lull you to sleep

Here’s an example of what I mean:

If a person lives in a democracy, which thus far we do, you soon learn that politics is not an orderly business like cosmetic dentistry or carpentry; it is more like pond hockey or maybe a conclave of sociopaths or an ostrich jubilee, and the messiness can drive you crazy, like finding potatoes in your sock drawer and rutabagas in the medicine cabinet, and the alternative to despair is amusement.

That 70-word lung buster, my friend, was written by radio personality Garrison Keillor and dropped casually into my in-box. 

You might imagine that Mr. Keillor may feel privileged to write with commas rather than periods like us ordinary folks. Perhaps he fears his computer may run out of periods.

How many thoughts in those convoluted 70 words?

At least six beginning with these 27 words:

If a person lives in a democracy, which thus far we do, you soon learn that politics is not an orderly business like cosmetic dentistry or carpentry.

Give him high marks for colorful language but pity his lack of linguistic common sense.

According to the website PlainLanguage.gov, “Complexity is the greatest enemy of clear communication. Write short sentences. Express only one idea in each sentence. Sentences loaded with dependent clauses confuse the audience by losing the main point in a forest of words.”

Several online services will help you learn to write better. One I like is Master Class.com which preaches that complete ideas in fewer words allow you to be succinct and direct.

There are four reasons to write short sentences:

  1. The shortest path between two objects is a straight line. Think of that axiom when you’re writing. A verbose sentence will distract readers and bury your main point under unnecessary words.
  2. They improve readability. When sentences are short, readers can easily understand them.
  3. They are more striking. Learn to make a point in a crisp, short line. As you trim excess wordage and sculpt a sentence, your writing will improve.
  4. They prevent you from overthinking. Think only of how to convey your point in the simplest way. 

These nine Master Class tips will help you:

  1. Start small. Your lead sentence must create intrigue that makes your readers want to keep reading. Make it punchy to draw them in.
  2. Plan what you want to say. Make sure every word contributes to the meaning of your sentence.
  3. Cut your word count. Every single word should feel needed. Cut to create a coherent message.
  4. Break long sentences into short ones. Turn clauses into separate sentences.
  5. Use the active voice. Put subjects first and have them perform actions. And use active verbs.
  6. Remove redundancy. For example: “In my opinion, I think” could simply be “I think.”
  7. Lose unneeded words. These include adverbs and modifiers. Cut all filler words.
  8. Use one-, two-and three word sentences. Seriously. Try it. You’ll like it.
  9. Self-edit. Review and shorten every sentence.

Next: Creating first class writers and editors

The above will appear in The Art of Compelling Writing, Volume 3. Volume 1 and 2 are available at Amazon.com for $9.99 each. The author, a well-known writing coach and retired newspaper owner, wrote these books to help editors like you teach your reporters how to write well. 

Sales proceeds go to adult literacy tutoring. You can help us change many lives by teaching them to read and write.

To comment or with questions, please write JerryBellune@yahoo.com

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