Shorter Is Better

© 2010 Tracy Crump

My love for detail often exhibits itself in the use of long sentences. And I mean long. I’m not the only one. Look at Dickens and some of the other wordy classic writers, to say nothing of the Apostle Paul. One of their sentences could consume the 400-word limit of this newsletter column.

While Dickens can get away with it, most of the rest of us can’t. Today’s sound bite consumer—what I call the Sesame Street generation—wants a quick read with snappy movement from one idea to the next. This is especially important when writing for the web. Editor Jim Watkins says Internet users have an attention span of only about nine seconds so we have to hook them fast. We won’t do that with long, drawn-out sentences.

For printed material, variety is the spice of life. Use short sentences to make a point or move the action along. The quicker and more intense the action, the shorter sentences should be. Use longer sentences for description, narration or to slow the pace for reflection. Vary sentence structure and length to avoid a monotonous, sing-song type of rhythm that will put the reader to sleep. Use introductory clauses or phrases in some sentences and alternate with simple subject-verb-direct object construction.

Even with narration and description, however, take care not to make sentences too long-winded. Many writers say there’s an “ideal” word limit for sentences, but I’ve seen very little consistency in the numbers. I’ve found a better approach is to read the sentence out loud. If I can’t finish it without taking a breath, it’s too long.

Our goal is to keep the reader reading. For most writing, shorter is better. (But I still like Dickens.)

For more on writing online, see Jim Watkins’s article at

Tracy Crump has published more than 100 articles, devotionals, and short stories in publications such as Focus on the Family, Today’s Christian, Journey, Pray!, ParentLife, and Thirteen of her stories have appeared in anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Soul and Cup of Comfort. Crump serves as conference faculty for American Christian Writers, Kentucky Christian Writers, and Southeast Christian Writers and moderates an online critique group. She is a 2008 C.L.A.S.S. graduate and was named 2009 Writer of the Year at the Memphis ACW Conference.



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