Write shorter sentences

When I’m editing a piece of writing — my own, or someone else’s — I always ask the same three questions:

  1. What’s the purpose of this? And is it fit for purpose?
  2. Can I spot the passive voice here?
  3. Could the sentences be shorter?

Okay, that’s four questions, but we’re focussing on words and not numbers here. And besides, if I could only do one thing to improve a piece of writing, it’d be answering question three — could the sentences be shorter?

Why focus in on short sentences? Well, for a start, shorter sentences make writing more interesting. They give it a sense of rhythm and pace. Like this. And when you follow up a super-short sentence with a longer one that’s full of detail, the momentum of it brings your reader along for the ride.

On top of this, using shorter sentences will make your writing more clear. When you’re explaining something complicated, it’s easy to default to a stream of consciousness and write a single, long sentence, broken up into lots of tiny subclauses by commas, that confuses your reader, as you get further and further away from your original point.

But short sentences do the opposite. They break up your idea into simple, digestible thoughts. And they force you to think a little more about what you’re trying to say. Go on, try it. And if you’re not convinced, read the last paragraph again.

Finally, by focussing on shorter sentences, I’ll often end up answering my other two editing questions by accident. By writing more clearly, the true meaning of what I’m writing will become obvious. It’ll soon become clear whether or not it meets its original purpose. Better still, shorter sentences tend to be active ones. Writing in the passive voice nearly always makes your sentences longer.

So, if you’re editing your work (or someone else’s), take a look at the length of those sentences. Do they vary in length? Could you follow up a long sentence with a shorter one? The title of this post is perhaps a little misleading, because not every sentence should be short. You’re looking for variety. And if you come across a horrendously long sentence, see if you can break it into two. Or three. Or more.

Short sentences are great. Use them, and I guarantee your writing will read better.