There’s a limit to how much readers can take. Here’s a quick self-editing technique that all readers will appreciate. A two-line limit. About 25 words per sentence.
Yes, you read that correctly, dear reader who is also a writer. About 25 words. Fewer if you can manage it.
When readers reach the third line of text and still don’t see a period coming up, they start to think perhaps there’s something else they should be doing. When sentences lose their focus, readers do too.
Long sentence limit: one a week?
Every once in a while, you might have something to say that needs 35 or 40 words. It’s perfectly fine to put all those technical words into one sentence and dazzle readers with your big idea. Once or twice a week, perhaps.
When you were a young writer just learning to impress your professors, it might have seemed like a good idea to dazzle them with multi-syllable words strung into sentences that somehow turned themselves into entire paragraphs.
Did you notice? That was my 36-word sentence for the week.
The biggest problem with long sentences is that writers know they’re awful, without really knowing why. So, they cross out the bad sentence and write another one. One that’s equally dreadful. And just as long.
Writing above your reader’s limit
Some workplace writers think they can save time by writing fewer sentences. So, they pack everything they know into sentences that go on for three or four lines before they take pity on the poor reader and throw in a period. (That was 29 words; pushing my limit.)
What a relief it is to get to that period. For writers and readers alike.
This is my favourite 30-second edit for engineers. An engineer is someone who doesn’t like writing. There are exceptions, of course. Accountants can also be someone who doesn’t like writing. And computer programmers.
The habit: Long sentences
For this 30-second edit you’ll need two things: your eyes and a few extra periods. And a timer, of course.
Just look down the page to make sure there is at least one period for every two lines of writing. This works just as well on paper as it does on your computer. Don’t read. Just look.
The flag and the fix in 30 seconds
The flag: A sentence that’s approaching the end of a third line is probably too long. Of course, overall line length will differ depending on the document format. For standard document pages, estimate 10 to 12 words for every line.
The fix: Use more periods. They’re free. And of course make sure that your new, shorter sentences are complete. You might have to add a word or two to keep them from becoming lost fragments of ideas.
This is only supposed to take 30 seconds. If you are distracted by your brilliant sentences, stop reading. Just look. If you’re seeing the right number of periods, you’re good. Nice writing. It’s time for coffee.
When you find a sentence that’s approaching three lines without a period:
- Stop looking and start reading the long sentence.
- Read until you find the first logical place to add a period.
- Add the period.
- Check the words after the period to see if you still need them.
- If so, add words to turn the remaining fragment into a second, complete sentence. Also, consider transition words to help readers see how the two sentences relate to each other (therefore, for example, as a result, instead).
If you’re struggling to see where the period goes, trying reading the sentence out loud. You’ll run out of breath (or lose interest) almost exactly where the first period should go.
Here are two sentences from earlier in this post. Read them aloud to hear or see places to add a period. Your ear might tell you where the sentence is reaching the end of its first complete thought. That’s also where the reader might start to lose focus.
Be careful not to change the original meaning. It’s not your sentence, after all.
So, they pack everything they know into sentences that go on for three or four lines before they take pity on the poor reader and throw in a period.
When you were a young writer just learning to impress your professors, perhaps it seemed like a good idea to dazzle them with multi-syllable words strung into sentences that somehow turned themselves into entire paragraphs.
After you have added a period, it’s easier to see that small adjustments will be needed to turn the remaining words into a second sentence. Or, if you’re the editor at work, you might suggest cutting those words.
Some sentences can’t be fixed by just adding a period. Next week, I’ll focus on cutting words you don’t need. That’s a 30-second edit that all writers need. Especially confident writers who have lots to say…