As a kid, I wrote short, snappy sentences. As I grew older and more pretentious, my sentences grew in length. Longer sentences meant I was a better writer, right?
The better I got at writing, the more I understood about clarity and ‘making every word count’. In short, my long overcomplex sentences either bored or confused readers.
Here’s how to prune your purple prose, alongside some memorable examples.
Why should I shorten MY sentence?
Today’s average sentence is around 15-20 words. In the 1820s, it was more like 25.
James Joyce’s Ulysses contains a 4,391-word sentence, which is horrifying.
What worked for your favourite classic novelist might not in the cutthroat 2020s. Apart from maybe Hemingway, who was so punchy he has a writing app named after him.
Also, the way we read online content has ruined all writing, forever
Today’s readers and editors expect simple, easy-to-digest prose. Whether you’re writing a novel or blog post, here’s why you need to craft it around short, clear sentences:
- 8-second attention spans—unless they’re reading for pleasure, readers want you to get to the point fast. You need to be as entertaining as what’s on the internet.
- It sounds more natural—do you talk in long sentences? Shorter sentences mimic speech, and who doesn’t like writing that sounds like a mate chatting to you?
- The UK’s average reading age is 9—and if you read a certain red-topped newspaper banned in Liverpool, it’s even lower. Know your audience and don’t show off with jargon, stay simple and concise for clarity.
- It adds tension—in fiction, short sentences add drama. Weave them in to make a statement. They’re also quotable e.g. ‘Marley was dead: to begin with.‘
You can write ‘classic’ literature and snappy, accessible copy. They’re both good writing.
Even Ulysses has its banger, ‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.‘
Anyone who’s edited to a wordcount will know it actually takes more skill to write less. Nobody is impressed by a five-paragraph email if it could have been five bullet points.
One more *huge* reason you should shorten your sentence
Google loves clarity. That’s right, even computer algorithms hate your long sentences.
If you don’t hold attention with your meandering, flowery writing, people bounce off your website. Which signals to Google that your content isn’t engaging, and you’ll be stuck on page 100 forever. So, if you’re writing for online, you need to work even harder.
Being readable and easy to understand makes people scroll to the next sentence.
Good writing pleases both human beings and our computer overlords.
Now we’ve covered why, HOW do you do shorten a sentence?
How to shorten a long sentence
When I worked for a law firm on their website, I’d regularly receive horrifying 50+ word sentences from lawyers. My skill was to unravel ‘legalese’ into accessible plain English.
When shortening a long or confusing sentence, I’d ask myself these questions:
Can I split this into multiple sentences?
The simplest way to shorten a long sentence is to split it up into shorter ones.
Say the sentence out loud and ‘feel’ for natural breaks. For example, if you’re using lots of commas, like with what I am doing right now, with this long sentence here, think about whether there are ways you could break it up, as you might be frustrating your readers.
Just be careful of creating sentence fragments that make no sense. Pink bananas!
But, it’s fine to start new sentences with conjunctions, despite what you got told at school. ‘But,’ ‘Yet’ and even ‘And’ can all start a new sentence and add punch. So try it out.
Scrub up on your basic sentence rules, so you can smash them with confidence.
Am I adding useless words or adverbs?
Stating the obvious can be a sure-fire way to bore readers and up your wordcount.
For example, ‘he shouted loudly’…Like, we know he’s loud, because he is shouting. Adverbs (words that modify verbs/adjectives and often end in -ly) are culprits for this.
If the sentence gets its point across, you don’t need to pad it out. Trust your readers.
‘I fell over stupidly and then hit my head on the cold ground, then I crawled to the hospital where I proceeded to wet my pants, and I was very embarrassed!‘ can be shortened to, ‘I fell, hitting my head. Then crawled to the hospital and wet my pants.‘
Because everyone knows falling over is dumb, and wetting your pants is embarrassing.
In linguistics, this is called ellipsis and we do it all the time naturally. It’s when you leave words out of a sentence because you can guess its meaning. For example, you don’t need to say ‘Then I crawled to the hospital and I wet my pants.’ It’s obvious from context.
Also, ask whether you need to say a thing was ‘really’ or ‘very’ something. And do you need that ‘that’? You can usually tell whether the sentence feels fine without it.
As an exercise, try cutting out as many words as you can. See which version is best.
Avoid redundant or overused phrases. Also, watch out for hedging, a type of language that makes you sound cautious/apologetic when expressing views. For example, using phrases like ‘I guess’ and ‘kind of’ more often, shows you’re unsure about your claims. Women can apparently be more likely to hedge in both writing and conversation, I think so anyway.
And ‘In my opinion’ is for passive aggressive emails, not your thriller.
As an uneasy talker who rambles when nervous, I sometimes overdo my word chopping. Don’t overcut your writing or you’ll sound like Rorschach from Watchmen.
Rorschach’s Journal. Fell over. Crawled to hospital. Wet pants.
Has this been written in the passive voice?
If Yoast, Grammarly, ProWritingAid, or even Word spell check are used a lot for your writing, then squiggles will have been received for this. Did that sentence sound awkward and full of unnecessary words? Active sentences tend to be shorter and snappier than passive sentences.
‘Sam kissed Frodo‘—active voice, shorter, exciting
‘Frodo was kissed by Sam‘—passive voice, longer, meh
See the difference? Sentences have more impact when the thing/person doing the action is the main focus (active), rather than the thing having something done to it (passive).
Passive voice isn’t wrong, but it’s never as clear, punchy or short as active voice.
Examples of long sentences in literature
You might be wondering; do I think all long sentences are bad? Of course not. In fact, long sentences have their place and can be a literary tool—just like short sentences.
Not all long sentences need shortening, sometimes they achieve a particular effect e.g.
Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls.—first sentence of Mervyn Peake’s ‘Titus Groan’, weighing in at 42 words
I love The Gormenghast Trilogy for its A T M O S P H E R E and this would not work:
Gormenghast Castle was a hot mess, but the huts outside were even worse.
Sometimes, a long windy sentence conveys a sense of madness or desperation:
She’s too young, it’s too late, we come apart, my arms are held, and the edges go dark and nothing is left but a little window, a very little window, like the wrong end of a telescope, like the window on a Christmas card, an old one, night and ice outside, and within a candle, a shining tree, a family, I can hear the bells even, sleigh bells, from the radio, old music, but through this window I can see, small but very clear, I can see her, going away from me, through the trees which are already turning, red and yellow, holding out her arms to me, being carried away.—Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, 111 words long
Sometimes, you are Jane Austen and you write however you damn like:
The charming Augusta Hawkins, in addition to all the usual advantages of perfect beauty and merit, was in possession of an independent fortune, of so many thousands as would always be called ten; a point of some dignity, as well as some convenience: the story told well; he had not thrown himself away — he had gained a woman of ten thousand pounds, or thereabouts; and he had gained her with such delightful rapidity — the first hour of introduction had been so very soon followed by distinguishing notice; the history which he had to give Mrs. Cole of the rise and progress of the affair was so glorious — the steps so quick, from the accidental rencontre, to the dinner at Mr. Green’s, and the party at Mrs. Brown’s — smiles and blushes rising in importance — with consciousness and agitation richly scattered — the lady had been so easily impressed — so sweetly disposed — had in short, to use a most intelligible phrase, been so very ready to have him, that vanity and prudence were equally contented.—a sentence from ‘Emma’, at 172 words long
Remember the tip earlier to write like you’re talking to a mate? The long sentence from Emma works, because it sounds like someone in a bonnet gossiping to you over tea.
Ms Austen also uses lots of punctuation—dashes, colons and semi-colons—to extend her monster sentence. When I need to go over 20-25 words, I usually Frankenstein my long sentence together using dashes; I find semi-colons difficult and hate using them.
My colleague recently described themselves as ‘three years clean’ of semi-colons. It’s actually fine to only use full stops and commas. You might even end up sounding clearer.
Want more examples of long sentences in literature? HERE ARE 65!
So, what’s a good sentence length?
‘Words should be weighed, not counted.’ – Yiddish proverb
The first company I worked for had a Style Bible specifying ‘a maximum of 20 words’ for sentences. I still keep this in mind, but often end up nudging 25+ words.
I’ve developed a habit of checking sentences in WordCounter to make sure. Send help.
There is no minimum sentence length. If you can say it out loud and it still makes sense, you’re fine. You. Can. Even. Do. This. People might just think you’re a pretentious asshole.
My favourite short sentence writer is Irvine Welsh. Check out these wee beauties. Irvine rocks because he can do concise, but he can also write Spud’s chapters in Trainspotting.
When in doubt, an old copywriter tip is to KISS. KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID.
If you have a long, complex sentence that will lose meaning if you break it up—and from my brush with legal writing, there are a lot of these—stick in some commas and dashes.
You can even spice things up; use a cheeky semi-colon, if you think it works better.
Should all my sentences be the same length?
That sounds really boring. Don’t do it. Amaze your reader with the wide variety of sentence lengths you can produce. You are a sexy, exciting, talented writer. I believe in you.
Remember, different sentence lengths serve different purposes in your writing.
To be able to move between short snappy sentences and long unwieldy ones, it helps to have simple and complex versions of the same idea. Remember Inception? You need ‘my father wants me to be my own man‘ as well as ‘for some reason Leonardo DiCaprio wants me to liquidate the multinational energy conglomerate I’m about to inherit.’
Types of short and long sentences
You don’t need to know all the rules of grammar to break them. But, it helps to know a few basic types of sentences, so you know whether what you have made IS a sentence.
Unless you’re going rogue, sentences should contain a clause, which is ‘a single and complete idea.’ Below are some examples of Simple, Compound, Complex and Complex Compound sentences. Most sentences will fall into one of these categories.
SIMPLE: ‘Lady Fuchsia sulked.‘ contains a single clause (a subject and a verb).
COMPOUND: ‘Lady Fuchsia sulked and ate a pear.’ contains two clauses, because Fuchsia is doing two things. The ‘and’ is a coordinating conjunction, linking the ideas together.
COMPLEX: ‘Lady Fuchsia sulked and ate a pear, which was rotten.’ contains a dependent clause (the second half refers to the pear in the first half, it wouldn’t work on its own).
COMPLEX COMPOUND: ‘Lady Fuchsia sulked, eating her pear, which was rotten, even when Steerpike distracted her by taking off his shirt, for which he had found some sort of flimsy pretext, as we all know he often did.‘ Language is recursive, so you can keep embedding ideas in each other, forever. The skill lies in knowing when to stop and move on.
Is all purple prose bad writing?
Yes, you should take Tolkien, Dickens and especially Lovecraft, and burn them in a big bin.
No, of course not. As we’ve seen from 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight, you can bang your face on a keyboard and still make money. And some people LOVE rich, flowery, overlong sentences, including me! Don’t think too much like a marketer when baring your soul.
‘Edgar Allen Poe uses long sentences and he’s the best writer ever!’—Me, Aged 15
But remember, short sentences add energy to writing. They help engage readers with an eight-second attention span. The best writing cuts like a knife and makes every word count.
It also worked for Iggy Pop, who swore by writing songs with 25 words or less.
The last word on shortening long sentences
There’s nothing wrong with long sentences. They have their purpose. But every time you find yourself writing one, ask yourself WHY it needs to be that long. Shortening sentences boosts your reader’s ability to understand, remember and relate to your writing.
Tools for shortening sentences online
Hemingway—My favourite writing tool. It makes your writing ‘clear and bold.’
WordCounter—If for some reason you can’t count words in-document, use this.
Grammarly—The old faithful, Grammarly flags spelling, grammar and more.
Yoast—Use WordPress? Add the plugin for readability analysis and SEO stuff.
I used to keep a printout of the below on my desk, but now I’m normal.
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
These are from Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language, where he ‘encourages concreteness and clarity instead of vagueness.’ Still relevant to writing today.
About the Author
Special thanks to Dr Marshall, for his proofreading skills and interesting facts.