Thursday, October 3, 2013

Keep sentences short, stupid

Try this sentence on for size:
The paradigmatic change from the fully controllable, powerful point sources in the classical power grid to the distributed area sources of alternative energy sources – such as wind and solar – calls for new qualities in the system-wide aggregation and processing of basic data.
Yeah, me too. Now look at it edited:
Adding new sources of energy such as wind and solar to existing power grids will require better data processing to manage them. 
That example from Tim Parker of The Bloom Group illustrates one of the best ways to make your writing more powerful: keep you sentence length under control. Give the reader a chance to breathe.

"For readability," Parker says, "the optimum sentence length is somewhere in the range 15 to 25 words. But if you go to most professional firms’ sites, you’ll more likely find an average length of at least 30 words, with 50 to 75 word sentences not uncommon."

Long sentences create several problems for you, too.
  • They require you as the writer to make a number of ideas work together.
  • They require you to shuffle more words into some logical order.
So you're doing yourself a favor, as well as the reader, when you keep them short.

N. Watson Solomon, a readability expert, quotes a number of experts here. One notes that:
Based on several studies, press associations in the USA have laid down a readability table. Their survey shows readers find sentences of 8 words or less very easy to read; 11 words, easy; 14 words fairly easy; 17 words standard; 21 words fairly difficult; 25 words difficult and 29 words or more, very difficult.
Over the whole document, make the average sentence length 15-20 words. More people fear snakes than full stops, so they recoil when a long sentence comes hissing across the page.
Perhaps you should become the Sentence Length Cop in your office. Suddenly everything might become clear, the operation might run more efficiently, and you might be able to leave for home on time.

Addendum: I ran this post through a readability checker. Here's what it told me:

No. of sentences19
No. of words346
No. of complex words31
Percent of complex words8.96%
Average words per sentence18.21
Average syllables per word1.39

That translates into a grade level of about 9, meaning it should be easily understood by 14 to 15 year olds.

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