Write short sentences in your blog—plain language writing tip

“Write short sentences” has always been a basic guideline for plain English. I expect you’ve heard — or taught — that advice yourself. Far from questioning this, I see it as the single most important guideline for clear writing. Just shortening or splitting long sentences can change a piece of writing from gobbledegook to clarity.

Why does this matter? After all, obviously there are exceptions. Yes, I know, some sentences by great writers carry on and on for two, three or four pages. However, they are masters of the art of writing, whereas most of us bloggers are not. Besides, we are not writing for paper publication but for a screen, which is technically harder for the human eye.

How long is a short sentence?

As a rule of thumb, aim for a maximum of 21 words (three bites of seven words, or seven phrases). You can go a little longer once in a while, but be aware that on a blog, this is dangerous. Believe it or not, long sentences risk driving readers away before they read a word.

Too many words for one sentence! Which is the main idea?

Too many words for one sentence! Which is the main idea?

How long sentences alienate readers

Long sentences are liable to be wordy and muddled and confusing. But here I just want to mention one odd physiological reason for keeping your sentences short. The thing is, sentence length can influence readers subliminally.

Below is a sentence by William Faulkner, which I found online as an example of a long sentence. Note that this is a quote out of context: that makes it worse. If you were to meet such a sentence while reading a novel, especially on paper, you might approach it in a very different manner.

William Faulkner’s 118-word sentence

Notice how you feel when you look at this long sentence. Notice where your eyes go. Notice whether you actually do read the whole thing.

The streets are paved now, and the telephone and electric companies are cutting down more and more of the shade trees—the water oaks, the maples and locusts and elms—to make room for iron poles bearing clusters of bloated and ghostly and bloodless grapes, and we have a city laundry which makes the rounds on Monday morning, gathering the bundles of clothes into bright-colored, specially-made motor cars: the soiled wearing of a whole week now flees apparitionlike behind alert and irritable electric horns, with a long diminishing noise of rubber and asphalt like tearing silk, and even the Negro women who still take in white people’s washing after the old custom, fetch and deliver it in automobiles.

How one reader dealt with Faulkner’s long sentence

Well? What’s the verdict? As for me, this was how I “read” it.

  1. I read the first 11 words.
  2. Glanced down looking for a break.
  3. Noticed the two em-dashes.
  4. Noticed a few of the commas.
  5. Noticed the colon.
  6. Cast my eye over the whole page reading a few words and phrases: shade trees, elms, grapes, motor cars, electric horns, white people’s washing.
  7. Realised that the words I actually read were all adjacent to white space: an em-dash, comma or colon.
  8. Decided not to read the whole thing.

Am I lazy? Am I semi-literate? Am I stupid? No, no and no. Nor are you. We are human.

Your readers’ eyes crave white space

You want people to read your blog, not just to glance and run away. A mass of text is frightening. People scan it to find out if it’s going to be worth the effort of reading. But they can’t spot any keywords because there are just too many.

So give them white space. Give them full stops (and headlines and paragraph breaks, but that’s another story). Full stops are easy. Full stops are your friends.

A more academic or intellectual reader may be used to tackling long, solid, impenetrable chunks of text. But they’d secretly rather not, and anyway, when reading on a screen those academic eyes are straining. So give them a break. Write short sentences.

Don’t bully yourself over long sentences: just fix them

If this information about plain English is new to you, don’t worry and don’t despair. Just glance at your own blog post and check that it has enough full stops to break up the text.

No need to count every word. If readers can tell how long your sentences are without reading them, so can you. If 21 words occupy about a line and a half on your own screen, regard that as your limit. Get it?

Photo of about 21 paving stones

That’s enough words for one sentence!


17 thoughts on “Write short sentences in your blog—plain language writing tip

  1. myrak says:

    Great advice…hadn’t heard it before, thankyou.

  2. Alien Resort says:

    Short sentence is good.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Top marks

  3. Love this! Over long sentences and big blocks of text without paragraph breaks make my eyes glaze over. I will often stop reading… or not even start.

  4. Jonno says:

    Brilliant advice as like you I tend to skim-read long sentences and ignore the bulk of them. We try and use shorter sentences generally with lots of white space with the odd long one thrown in. Seems to read okay.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Yes, that keeps it interesting and readable too

  5. Dan Antion says:

    Thanks for this gem.

  6. Ally Bean says:

    So give them white space. Yes, yes. Great advice. There’s nothing more daunting and slightly exasperating than to look at a blogger’s post and only see heavy long paragraphs of text. Make it easy to read, not a slog through a swamp of words.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thanks Ally. You know whereof you speak 😃

  7. mpardi2013 says:

    Well done. When reading Faulkner in college I asked my instructor how he could be considered a great writer when he would surely have flunked our English course. The answer: That’s his style. Rather weak answer.

    I’ve shortened the sentences on my recent blog pieces, but my readership is largely academic and I need to fully develop a statement and avoid “dumbing down” the content. That may cost me some readers, though I don’t think so as it is read in over 75 countries.

  8. Rachel McAlpine says:

    Your blog, your playground!

  9. Alan Beck says:

    Thank you! I’ve learned quite a bit from your blog. Now, if only I can incorporate it in mine!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      It’s easy peasy.

  10. Elizabeth says:

    I am half way through a biography on Henry, William and Alice James. Even the quotes from Henry leave me glassy eyed. I fell asleep numerous times in college trying to get through his convoluted phrasing. Thanks for the support for short sentences.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Sounds like hard work. I like reading William, though. Did Alice write?

      1. Elizabeth says:

        She kept a diary which has been published. I haven’t read it yet.

  11. srbottch says:

    Great advice.

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