How long is too long for a sentence
The longer the sentence, the harder it is for readers to understand.
But how long is too long? What’s the average length of a sentence that readers can easily comprehend?
Depends on whom you ask …
Publication coach Daphne Gray-Grant writes:
A “53-word sentence feels like my junk drawer — too much information crammed into too small a space.”
Wayne Schiess, senior lecturer at The David J. Beck Center for Legal Research, Writing, and Appellate Advocacy, writes:
“For readable writing that doesn’t tax your readers, vary your sentence length, seek an average in the low 20s, and cut any sentence of 45 words or more.”
The authors of Writing Tips for Word Lovers write:
“The 25-word rule isn’t bad as long as you don’t follow it. Don’t count words and stick religiously to the 25-word limit. A long row of sentences all 25 words long can be as dull as a collection of short sentences can be, unless you’re writing for 8-year-olds.”
Joseph M. Williams, the author of Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, wrote:
“The ability to write clear, crisp sentences that never go beyond twenty words is a considerable achievement.”
Jack Hart, editor at large of The Oregonian and author of A Writer’s Coach, counsels:
“Writers who demand attention seldom average more than 17 words a sentence.”
Poet Richard Hugo agrees. He writes:
“Maximum sentence length: seventeen words. Minimum: one. No semicolons. Semicolons indicate relationships that only idiots need defined by punctuation. Besides, they are ugly. Make sure each sentence is at least four words longer or shorter than the one before it.”
Jack Cappon, longtime Associated Press editor and writing ace, said:
“There are no absolute rules of good writing — generalizations are instantly riddled with exceptions — but the principle of the 16-word average sentence comes closest. No other single step you can take will show such quick results in clarity and vigor.”
Gary Provost, author of 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, reminds us that word count isn’t the only consideration in sentence length:
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony.”
Tom Silvestri, president of Media General Community Newspapers, suggests:
“Imagine a clock that starts ticking after the 10th word. With each additional word, the ticking gets louder. After the 20th word, the ticking is VERY loud. After the 40th, it’s stadium-crowd loud. After 45, deafening.”
When does your sentence-length alarm go off? If you want to write copy that readers find easy to read and understand, keep sentences short.