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Why sentence length matters

by on 3 Dec, 2011

Are your sentences flabby? Many writers try to cram far too much information into their sentences.  The result: they are hard to understand so they don’t get read.

Here’s an example:

The estate was Woods’s most successful commission with the park and grounds hailed as ‘the most beautiful and picturesque’ in the country. He widened the river Lea in front of the re-modelled house, designed by Thomas Paine, extending the embankment to Paine’s Palladian style bridge (there is an identical one at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire) and the effect was set off by both the house and the driveway over the bridge to the Hall.

The first sentence is not great. It needs a comma, for one thing:

The estate was Woods’s most successful commission, with the park and grounds hailed as ‘the most beautiful and picturesque’ in the country.

But it is the second that has real problems. At 52 words it is far too long. But more important than that, the writer has tried to cram in too many ideas.

Here’s the first: He widened the river Lea in front of the re-modelled house,

And the second: designed by Thomas Paine,

Now the third: extending the embankment to Paine’s Palladian style bridge

And the fourth: (there is an identical one at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire)

And fifth for good measure: and the effect was set off by both the house and the driveway over the bridge to the Hall.

The problems start with that first weak interruption: designed by Thomas Paine. Afterwards it is hard for the reader to follow the writer back to talking about the river again;  we lose concentration.

Most readers would stop there. But even if they perservered, they would come up against another interruption all too soon when they got to the parentheses.

Easy checks

This writer could have avoided these problems with two simple checks for effective writing:

  • Does each of my sentences follow the one idea, one sentence rule?
  • Do I have more than three piece of punctuation in my sentence?

Answering either of those would have led to a rethink. Maybe they would have come up with something like this:

The estate was Woods’s most successful commission with the park and grounds hailed as ‘the most beautiful and picturesque’ in the country. He widened the river Lea in front of the re-modelled house, extending the embankment to a Palladian style bridge. Like the house it was designed by Thomas Paine; there is an identical one at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.

Always aim for a variety of sentence lengths and styles.

And check: are your sentences too flabby?

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