Controlling Sentence Length

Writing is often plagued with sentences that are too long. The more words and relationships in a sentence, the more confused your readers may become. As writers, we need to remember that our brains process information better when it’s presented in small chunks.

Using shorter words and removing bulky phrases is one way to reduce sentence length. However, controlling sentence length is also a matter of selecting information units and making separate sentences for each unit. In other words, a sentence should only cover one main thought or idea. When you change ideas, start a new sentence.

A good guideline to follow is to keep sentences to a maximum of 2.5 typed lines. If a sentence is over 2.5 lines, there is probably more than one idea being presented to readers. Sometimes a sentence with only one idea might end up being longer than 2.5 typed lines, or much shorter. That’s fine, because having different sentence lengths adds variety to your writing.

You can also prevent your sentences from becoming overly long by avoiding the overuse of linking words such as and, but, or, so, because, also and however. All of these words are useful to help you link ideas, but if you overdo it, your sentences can get away from you.

You can have a never-ending sentence if you throw in too many of these linking words.

Let’s look at an example of a sentence that can be chunked into shorter ideas.

Before

Our job is to stay between the stacker and the tie machine to see if the newspapers jam, in which case we pull the bundles off and stack them on a skid because otherwise they would back up in the stacker and the press would have to be turned off.

After

Our job is to stay between the stacker and the tie machine to see if the newspapers jam. If they do, we pull the bundles off and stack them on a skid. Otherwise, they would back up in the stacker and the press would have to be turned off.

We’ve taken one sentence and turned it into three. By separating the three ideas, we’ve made this text easier to read, something your readers will appreciate.