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  • Writer's pictureLeah Geller

The most important thing you can do to improve your writing

Updated: Mar 15, 2023

You may be surprised.

One of the biggest challenges people face when writing is keeping their sentences short enough to engage their audience. This is especially true for anyone who needs to communicate complex information, such as research results or new innovations.

Research shows that when average sentence length is 14 words, readers understand more than 90% of what they’re reading. At 43 words, comprehension drops to less than 10%.

If you are writing for a general audience, aim for an average sentence length of about 15 words. If you do need to write a longer sentence, try to precede or follow it with a shorter one.

For a technical audience, you can aim for an average sentence length of 20 words. However, even technical or highly educated audiences don’t want to wade through dense, unwieldy prose. Everyone has too much information to deal with already.

Guidelines prepared for Elsevier, which publishes scientific and medical content, advises that sentences average around 12 to 17 words. I recently looked at a few Scientific American articles and they averaged around 15 to 20 words per sentence.

How to shorten your sentences

Below are some quick and easy ways to shorten your sentences.

  1. Remove fluff words, such as "very," "quite," "key" or "unique." These kinds of modifiers actually diminish credibility, rather than increase it.

  2. Check to see if you have two or more ideas embedded into your sentence. If so, break each idea into its own sentence.

  3. If your sentence includes a list of items, turn it into a bulleted list.

When you work to shorten your sentences, you also eliminate some other common writing problems. For example, writing in the passive voice, which you generally want to avoid, requires more words than in the active voice.

How to measure average sentence length

It's very easy to measure the average number of words per sentence. Simply click the "Editor" function in Word. You can find this at the top right-hand corner of the Word dashboard. Then click on "Document stats" and you'll see a box titled "Readability Statistics" (see below).

I encourage you to take one of your recent documents and determine its average "Words per Sentence." You may be surprised.

My next blog post will cover the related topic of readability. Stay tuned!

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