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The minimalist guide to sentences: 20 words or less

By in Content Marketing, Copywriting, Editing | 4 comments

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Let’s call out the purple elephant in the room with you.

 

Have courage, go on.

 

 

You know – the one that’s taking up all that room, over there, on your page.

It’s called long sentences.

It happens.

We all have occasion to feed the elephant at times.

For instance… when you can’t stop saying something, or don’t know what to say, or have too much to say, or can’t break up your thought-stream, or you start babbling, or you’re not quite sure where to put the punctuation, so none seems easier…

But feeding the elephant is definitely not good for achieving clear, concise, comprehensible writing.

So let me give you the low fat, no guilt minimalist guide to short sentences: less than twenty words are ideal.

More than twenty words dramatically drops readability and the number of readers reached.

Writing sentences in varied lengths adds rhythm, flow and effect to your work. It also gives your reader’s brains time to rest between thoughts.

But on average, sentences should be relatively short.

Especially in this, the Age of Screen-readers.

If you’re not convinced, look at this chart on sentence length and reader comprehension.

 

Sentence Average Length Readability Rating Readers Reached
Up to 8 words Very easy 90%
11 words Fairly easy 86%
17 words Standard 75%
21 words Fairly difficult 40%
25 words Difficult 24%
29 words and up Very difficult 4.5%

 

Are you now rethinking that last piece you wrote?

The one that included a number of wonderfully lyrical sentences that ran into numbers beyond the magic twenty?

Twenty word sentences are ideal for comprehension and ease of reading.

That doesn’t mean writing to a child’s level – it means clarifying your thoughts first, and then lining up the words one after the other in a clear manner.

For no more than twenty words.

After that, you’ll have lost your reader.

 

Over to you …

Do you have troubles working out where and when to put the fullstop?

Have you noticed a difference in your writing when you stick to the twenty word rule? Or do you disagree and think the rule is rubbish?

Tell us in the comments.

 Note: I couldn’t find  an original source for the chart on readability that I had squirrelled away for years. If anyone knows an original source…can you drop me a line so I can attribute it correctly? Thanks.

 

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4 Comments

    • Ahmed

      July 19, 2012

      Post a Reply

      , if there are physical limtaitions (like any print job would have), it’s okay. But I see no added value in limiting students when writing an assignment.Perhaps they could give you a minimum and maximum word count? That would allow for some standardization and still allow for your budding academic spirit to flourish.Oh, and when I said major’ I meant is there some specialist subject you focus on ( Elizabethan playwrights and their perceptions of Northern Italian Renaissance portraiture’, or something obscure like that)?Gotta split now (I’ve breeched 100+ words already).

      • Di Mace

        July 21, 2012

        Post a Reply

        Hi Ahmed, Thanks for leaving your thoughts. Some people feel strongly that they shouldn’t be limited in word counts, while others believe they’re essemtial. You’re perfectly right that print jobs have space limitations, and online has the attention limitations of ‘skimmers.’ As far as student assignments, the 20 word senetnce guideline is to help make their work clear, concise and comprehensible – rather than rambling and confused. But who am I to say? 🙂

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