In a previous post on business writing, one of the tips we covered was to reduce sentence length to increase readability. Studies show that long sentences make text difficult to comprehend. In general, it’s best to keep sentences below 35 words and aim for an average sentence length of around 20 words.
Let’s look at a few examples of unruly sentences and see how we can improve them by editing.
The following sentence is 28 words long.
Selling is both an art and a science, and thinking that sales success will happen overnight is a common cause of cash flow problems for the small business.
It’s not too long, and it can easily be divided into two sentences to improve readability.
Selling is both an art and a science. Thinking that sales success will happen overnight is a common cause of cash flow problems for the small business.
The next sentence is 46 words long.
Small business competes with big business, and whilst small businesses may not be able to offer regular promotions or share options, they may be able to offer other attractive benefits such as a friendlier work environment, more flexibility, greater responsibility, a parking space or family-oriented policies.
By cutting this sentence into three sentences, we reduce the average length to 15 words and increase readability.
Small business competes with big business. Whilst small businesses may not be able to offer regular promotions or share options, they may be able to offer other attractive benefits. These might include a friendlier work environment, more flexibility, greater responsibility, a parking space or family-oriented policies.
On the Flesch Reading Ease Scale (explained in an earlier post, How to Improve the Readability of Your Business Writing) the 46-word sentence above has a readability of 0 out of 100, while the edited version has a readability of 24 out of 100 (with 100 being the most readable).
Generally, when you see many conjunctions (such as and, but, yet, or, so) it’s a good clue that sentences might be too long. In many cases you can end a sentence and begin a new one where you find one of these conjunctions.
One common error we see when editing business writing is the use of the conjunctive adverb however to splice two sentences together.
I have completed the proposal, however I have not submitted it. (incorrect)
I have completed the proposal. However, I have not submitted it. (correct)
I have completed the proposal; however, I have not submitted it. (correct)
Avoiding long sentences is also important when writing promotional copy.
Try reading the following 53-word sentence.
Drawing back on our years of experience in consulting to businesses in array of issues, from ISO 9001 to business design and strategy, we developed a unique methodology that offers you a real quality solution for your ISO needs, without the expensive price tag that is usually attached to quality ISO 9001 systems.
With a little editing we can divide it into two sentences with an average length of 21.5 words per sentence.
We have drawn on extensive consulting experience ─ from ISO 9001 to business design and strategy ─ to develop a unique methodology that offers a quality solution to your ISO needs. We provide this without the typical high cost of quality ISO 9001 systems.
We also reduced the text by 10 words (from 53 to 43) without losing any meaning.
When using Microsoft Word, you can quickly determine the average sentence length of your business writing.
Take the following steps to show the readability statistics, which include average sentence length, at the end of the Spelling and Grammar check.
In Word 2007:
- Click the Microsoft Office Button , and then click Word Options.
- Click Proofing.
- Make sure Check grammar with spelling is selected.
- Under When correcting grammar in Word, select the Show readability statistics check box.
In Word 2003:
- On the Tools menu, click Options, and then click the Spelling & Grammar tab.
- Select the Check grammar with spelling check box.
- Select the Show readability statistics check box, and then click OK.
- On the Standard toolbar, click Spelling and Grammar .