Sentences: Is less more?

Dec 06 2011 Published by under [Information&Communication]

Everyone learns to write in different ways. I don't mean how to physically form letters or even string a few words together, but to really write. It takes practice to get to the point where one can be an effective writer, and most good writers are constantly finding ways to improve.

One thing I've noticed is a recent trend towards a call for shorter sentences, highlighted by an article by the Editor of Bioessays. In this editorial, Dr. Moore contends that the internet age has placed a premium on small, digestible sentences in the neighborhood of 20 words. He contends that since information is easy to find, easily understandable information will be that which is consumed over more dense material. He is, afterall, an editor with a vested interest in having his journal's stuff referenced and the crux of it is really here:

The Internet places diverse genres of written works side-by-side. Ever more researchers use Google et al. to find relevant literature; and if a reader finds one particular paper too taxing to read, an alternative source of the information–in more digestible form–is increasingly frequently just a click away. Ever more, bloggers and other science writers write for audiences that include researchers. And a growing number of scientists–some of them almost professional bloggers themselves–write brief communications for their own community. I believe that scientific articles are, increasingly, in competition with such writings. Whether scientists or not, few of us will disagree that the short-winded sentences of science writers are usually more pleasing to read than the average peer-reviewed scientific article.... Crucial information should be written in short chunks. A few massive sentences can seriously diminish reader understanding, and hence gratification!

Whereas I agree that that clarity is key, I think I disagree that short sentences is the only way to achieve that goal. In fact, I think well-constructed longer sentences covey more information than those same thoughts chopped up. But do I practice that?

We all like data, so I took a few minutes and put a number of bloggers to the test, but for the hell of it, I included a bunch of papers and grants I have written over the last few years. I pulled out text in paragraph form from 10 posts* by 7 bloggers, including myself. I also pulled random pages from 10 of my IRL writing as comparison, and calculated the mean sentence length using Flesh. I averaged the value from the 10 selected pieces for each person and got the following:

CPP 30.4
IRL Me 24.6
Ed Yong 23.3
FSP 21.9
PLS 20.5
Dr. Becca 19.2
Carl Zimmer 17.8
DM 16.6

I'm not sure what to make of the pattern, even in this small sample size. Bloggers who do science writing for a living, Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer, were towards each end of the spectrum. Those who don't, as far as I know, were all over the map and at both extremes.

One pattern that does emerge from my own writing is that I write shorter sentences on the blog (for a wider audience) than I do in my science writing. This comes as no surprise to me and I'm not sure I see any issue with that. An editor of a journal like Bioessays, that depends on broad readership, might be right in claiming that shorter sentences make for "better" papers for their purposes. However, I don't believe that holds true for all of science writing. Sometimes we are writing for a broad audience, and sometimes we are not.

I would be interested to hear if others find there is a difference in the mean sentence length between blog and IRL.

*I could only find 9 posts from CPP that fit the criteria in about 80 that I searched.

17 responses so far

  • Namnezia says:

    Yes, but your IRL writing often has citations after the sentences.

  • Ed Yong says:

    Interesting. When I was working at a cancer charity, when we were writing for the broadest possible audiences, including people with very little education, we'd go for around 15 words. For everyone else, around 20.

    I'm happy with 23, especially since NERS allows me to indulge me secret love for the semi-colon.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    One aspect of writing for people who do not have English as a first language is to use the same word over and over rather than use synonyms. It is to be assumed that your scientific publications will be read world wide, don't you think? I find myself doing this in non scientific writing, which increases the boredom factor for the usual reader. So I go back and put in synonyms or change construction.

  • While it is amusing to see myself at the top, and with a massive margin over #2, it is not at all surprising.

    One of my worst writing habits is my tendency to over-long, over-complex sentences. When I write grants and papers, one of my standard editing stages--near the end of the process--is to go through and break up multi-clause sentences.

  • Wonder if Flesh ignores semi-colons for the purpose of calculating average sentence length? One long sentence that uses a semi-colon is a very different prospect than a not-quite-so-long sentence which doesn't.

    Personally, I like the old guideline that if you can't read a sentence in one breath, then it's too long (though I treat semi-colons as periods/full stops in determining this).

  • Ink says:

    Very interesting. My blog sentences and my critical writing sentences are practically at opposite ends of the spectrum, lengthwise! :)

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Just kicking ComradeLogorrhea's ass would have been enough but to win is sublime. Where's my sidebar badge?????

  • LOL! One of my clients is a freshly minted psychologist. When we started working together, almost the first thing out of her mouth was that her baroque sentences had to remain "long" (her term) and not be broken into shorter utterances. Understand: if you read some of these babies aloud, you would suffocate, because you would not be able to inhale enough oxygen to support life.

    As she has moved beyond the Ph.D. and continues to send over case studies and various other professional documents, she has begun to cultivate clarity. And lo! Apparently without effort her sentences have shrunken!

    Obviously, one's style adapts to context. But clarity is not a case of dumbing down content or catering to an unsophisticated readership. It's a case of having read Strunk & White, understood the reasoning behind their advice, and internalized it.

  • DJMH says:

    Ditto what CPP said. I am always semi-coloning my way through on the first run, then trying to break those buggers up into two sentences on the second or third pass.

    The thing is, a long, well-constructed sentence can be just as easy to read as a shorter one; it's just that it is harder to produce 30- or 40-word epic sentence without reader comprehension suffering. Really good writers can do it no problem. I enjoy reading Henry James's paragraph-long productions, in part because it is like watching a no-hitter: the tension builds and builds as you wonder how he will find his way to the period without leaving the fourth clause hanging.

    (Note both the semicolon AND the colon in that graf. LOVE.)

  • anon says:

    Since you are presenting data here, do have error values for these means? I'm wondering what the "noise" is for each writer and whether that could be meaningful.

    I coached my ESL student in writing and strongly encouraged her to shorten her sentences. It made her writing seem less sophisticated, but it at least became more clear and readable. Her writing has improved, and I think it will continue to do so with time and as her English improves.

  • Susan says:

    I'm very guilty of semicolon abuse. However, I have trained myself with an internal buzzer that screams "STOP NOW!" or if I'm feeling nicer, "could you possibly end the sentence here?" every time I use a semicolon.

  • Susan says:

    That last sentence was 30+ words. I'm incorrigible.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Friends don't let friends overuse semicolons.

  • jimbot says:

    Yep.

  • Just kicking ComradeLogorrhea's ass would have been enough but to win is sublime.

    Fuckebagge, writing your sentences the most like a fucken third-grader is not "winning".

  • Dr Becca says:

    I'm surprised to see myself near the short end of things, since I'm a huge proponent of both the semicolon and the em-dash. But whatever rambling, multi-clause sentences made their way into digital print on the blog are likely made up for by the likes of "Best. Sentence. EVER."

  • [...] As a postdoc I learned an enormous amount about writing, thanks to a supervisor who was relentless with red ink and an accomplished writer. I learned a lot about how to tailor my writing to the venue, even down to sentence length. [...]

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