Cut a word, increase comprehension
Here’s the problem with long sentences: Every time you add a word, you reduce comprehension.Let your sentences sprawl, and the subject, verb and object get too far away from each other. Your readers have to fly to JFK to pick up the subject, Uber to Chelsea to grab the verb and hightail it to the Upper East Side to find the object. Then comes the job of restringing these elements together so readers can finally figure out who’s doing what to whom.
How many times are they going to do that?!
To craft messages that communicate, rather than discombobulate, here are three ways to streamline sentences:
1. Hit period more often.
Two Chicago academics — William S. Gray and Bernice Leary — set out to learn what makes messages readable, in 1935. The result: a landmark study that identified 64 variables that made copy harder (or easier) to read.
The No. 1 thing you can do to improve readability, according to Gray and Leary’s research: Reduce the average number of words per sentence. Average sentence length had a -52% correlation in Gray and Leary’s study. This negative correlation means that the longer the sentence, the harder it is to read.
How short? To achieve 90% comprehension, aim for sentences of 14 words on average, according to the American Press Institute’s research.
2. Reduce the number of syllables per sentence.
“Average sentence length in syllables” saw a -47% correlation in the Gray and Leary study. That means the fewer syllables per sentence, the better.
This is an argument for either shorter words or shorter sentences or both. If you must use long words, write even shorter sentences.
3. Write explicit sentences.
Gray and Leary found a 48% correlation between the number of explicit sentences and ease of reading.
Explicit sentences are those with precise subjects, like Sharon or You. The higher your percentage of explicit sentences, the easier your message is to read.
[Explicit] “Students enjoyed taking the course” is an explicit sentence because it has a precise subject: students.
[Inexplicit] “Taking the course was a great idea” is inexplicit, because “Taking the course” is the subject, and we don’t know who did it.
More than 40% of the top variables in the Gray and Leary study — those with correlations of 35% or higher — related to sentences. That makes sentence length and structure one of the Top 2 predictors of readability, along with word length and familiarity.
The ROI on simplifying sentences is enormous: When you make your sentences shorter and easier to read, you increase the chances that readers will understand your message.
So get to it.