4 ways to write short sentences

Commence with a conjunction, break it with bullets, more

I know, I know. Your third-grade teacher, Mrs. Webb, told you never to start a sentence with a conjunction.

4 ways to write short sentences

Commence with a conjunction Go ahead: Start your sentence with And. It will make your sentences shorter — and your third-grade teacher will never know. Image from iStock.

News flash: These days, Mrs. Webb is probably never going to read your copy.

So go ahead: Move those linking words — “and,” “or,” “also,” “but,” “so,” “then” and “plus” — to the fronts of your sentences.

When you start with a conjunction, you break long sentences into short ones and move your copy along more briskly.

Here are 3 other ways to write short sentences:

1. Search and destroy conjunctions.

Sentences too long? Use Microsoft Word’s Find function to search for conjunctions.

Find conjunctions

Find conjunctions Microsoft Word’s Find function will help you identify conjunctions, including the 26 in this article.

They include:

  • And
  • Or
  • Also
  • But
  • So
  • Then
  • Plus

When one of my writing coachees tried this trick, she found 23 “ands” in a 500-word article.

When you find them, see whether you can replace them with a period. Or, instead of replacing them, commence with a conjunction.

2. Break it with bullets.

If you have a series of three or more items, break them out of the sentence into a bulleted or numbered list. Readers perceive bullets as each being separate sentences and paragraphs.

This is especially important online, where readers skim even more than they do in print. In one test, usability expert Jakob Nielsen made a webpage 47% more usable by breaking copy up and lifting ideas off the page.

Learn more about writing lists.

3. Don’t fix fragments.

Mrs. Webb, your 3rd-grade teacher, probably also counseled you to avoid sentence fragments.

Mrs. Webb was wrong. Sentence fragments can help you:

  • Create drama
  • Make a transition
  • Emphasize an important idea
  • Change the pace of your piece
  • Make your copy sound conversational
  • And, of course, make sentences shorter

Write fragments like Paul Harding.

Here’s how it works, in a passage from Paul Harding’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Tinkers:

He found that bankers paid well to keep their balky heirlooms telling time. He could replace the worn tooth on a strike wheel by hand. Lay the clock facedown. Unscrew the screws; maybe just pull them from the cedar or walnut case, the threads long since turned to wood dust dusted from mantels. Lift off the back of the clock like the lid of a treasure chest. Bring the long-armed jeweler’s lamp closer, to just over your shoulder. Examine the dark brass. See the pinions gummed up with dirt and oil. Look at the blue and green and purple ripples of metal hammered, bent, torched. Poke your finger into the clock; fiddle the escape wheel (every part perfectly named-escape: the end of the machine, the place where the energy leaks out, breaks free, beats time). Stick your nose closer; the metal smells tannic. Read the names etched onto the works: Ezra Bloxham-1794; Geo. E. Tiggs-1832; Thos. Flatchbart-1912. Lift the darkened works from the case. Lower them into ammonia. Lift them out, nose burning, eyes watering, and see them shine and star through your tears. File the teeth. Punch the bushings. Load the springs. Fix the clock. Add your name.

Used strategically, fragments can make your copy tighter and more interesting.

Period.

  • Cut Through the Clutter

    Measure, monitor and manage clarity with a cool (free!) tool

    Would your message be twice as good if it were half as long? The research says yes: The shorter your piece, the more likely readers are to read your message, understand it and make good decisions based on it.

    Cut Through the Clutter

    But most communicators (and, let’s be fair, their reviewers) ignore the research and keep piling on the paragraphs. The result? “You’re not more informed,” writes Tom Rosenstiel, former media critic for the Los Angeles Times. “You’re just numbed.”

    Analyze your message for 27 readability metrics and leave with targets, tips and techniques for improving each one.

    So how long is too long? What’s the right length for your piece? Your paragraphs? Your sentences? Your words?

    At Cut Through the Clutter — our in-house clear-writing workshop — you’ll learn how to:

    • Analyze your message for 27 readability metrics — and leave with quantifiable targets, tips and techniques for improving each one.
    • Increase reading, understanding and sharing with five techniques for cutting your copy significantly.
    • Avoid discombobulating readers. Leave this workshop with 11 metrics for reducing sentence length and increasing comprehension.
    • Stop getting skipped. Find out how long is too long — and leave with three ways to shorten paragraphs.
    • Eliminate multisyllabic pileups from your copy. They’re the No. 1 predictor of poor readability.

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