Write tight sentences, like the Times
How long should your sentences be?
According to the American Press institute:
- When the average sentence length in a piece was fewer than eight words long, readers understood 100% of the story.
- Even at 14 words, they could comprehend more than 90% of the information.
- But move up to 43-word sentences, and comprehension dropped below 10%.
Benchmark your writing against the Times’.
How does The New York Times stack up?
We analyzed 99 stories in the Dec. 15, 2014, edition of the Times. (We skipped the sports pages.) On this day, Times sentences:
- Ranged from an average of 15 words (“Seeing the World Through Its Barbecue Joints”) to an average of 41 words (“Shaping a Shepherd of Catholics, From Argentine Slums to the Vatican”).
- Averaged 23 words.
- Weighed in at a median of 24 words.
Hmmmm … That makes me wonder what Philip B. Corbett, deputy news editor for the Times, who’s in charge of revising the newsroom’s style manual, would have to say about this.
“But news is read in a hurry, and we should strive for clear, sharp prose that aids rapid comprehension. Long, complex sentences slow readers down and can lead our syntax astray.”
Write it right.
Aim for shorter sentences, like these from the Times:
Some companies that do approve business-class travel do so only in one direction, however.
Its broadband package is also the home to the sports broadcaster ESPN in Britain.
They added that the plaintiffs’ side lacked actual people to say they were harmed.
Make some sentences even shorter.
Build drama, create rhythm and make points powerfully by sprinkling in some super-short sentences like these, which weigh in at …
… 5 words
Mr. Abadi swung into action.
… 4 words
Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented.
Mr. Ratmansky evidently agrees.
Other fields could follow.
The dirt is imaginary.
… 3 words
It doesn’t obscure.
“No,” he replied.
He was 84.
It has legs.
… 1 word
Avoid overstuffed sentences.
Break up long sentences like these, which weigh in at …
… 66 words
A liberal Democrat, Mr. Garth generally worked for liberal or moderate candidates: He cut his political teeth on Adlai E. Stevenson’s short-lived 1960 presidential race; he went on to represent Governors Carey of New York, Ella T. Grasso of Connecticut, Brendan T. Byrne of New Jersey and John J. Gilligan of Ohio; as well as Mayors Koch of New York and Tom Bradley of Los Angeles.
… 70 words
In addition to Belvedere’s inclusion in “Spectre” — the 24th film in the Bond series, dating to 1962 — Mr. Gibb outlined extensive plans for the partnership that include worldwide advertising and public relations campaigns; two types of limited-edition bottles, both with 007 themes; promotions and events in locales like nightclubs, bars and stores; a presence in social media like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter; and a drink named the Belvedere Spectre martini.
… 81 words
From October 2013 to last June, the nursing home received poor ratings in a number of care benchmarks: 74 percent of patients had depressive symptoms, compared with 11.7 percent statewide and 6.2 percent nationally; 16 percent of residents lost too much weight over the course of their stay, almost three times the state average and more than twice the national average; and 4.8 percent had catheters inserted into their bladders and left there, compared with a state average of 2.6 percent.
Note that these three sentences are actually lists. Break up sentences like these by bulleting any series of three or more items.
How long are your sentences?