Snake-free writing

I’ve just finished a hefty non-fiction editing project. The book manuscript I was given to look at was a delight to work on. The author is a pioneer in his field (yes, he’s a farmer), knows his subject, and cares deeply about what he does.

It’s a good read, so my edit could be light-touch. That’s how I like a non-fiction editing job; some editors make changes for the sake of making changes, but most don’t.

My only grumble about an excellent first draft was that too many of the sentences were long. Most were a little too long, while a few were brain-twistingly, eye-wateringly massive.

The book in question is not academic writing – it’s aimed at the general reader. Even if it were intended for an academic audience, I’d say shorter, punchier sentences would be preferable.

But for the general reader shorter is definitely better. Martin Cutts says: “More people fear snakes than full stops, so they recoil when a long sentence comes hissing across the page.”

Should you set yourself a target length? I do. As sentences get longer people lose the will to go on, so it makes sense to keep them with you.

One study looked at comprehension. It found that readers understand all of a text written with an average sentence length of just eight words. When the average was 14, the readers ‘got’ more than 90 per cent.

They were then given text with longer sentences. When the average reached 43, comprehension disappeared below 10 per cent.

So, if you want to keep your reader happy don’t write snake sentences. Set yourself a target and stick to it. When you review your first draft look for sentences that exceed your target and sort them out.

‘Sorting them out’ could mean cutting out unnecessary words, or it could mean adding in full stops. For example, in the last sentence I could have used a full stop instead of a comma, and I could delete the ‘out’.

Some people will try to impose a maximum sentence length on you, but if you can resist that tyranny. Some sentences need more words and a variety of sentence lengths makes for better writing.

Also, the purpose of the text you’re creating should influence your sentence length target. For example, 12 words a sentence may be just write for brochure copy, whereas 20 might be better for a magazine feature article.

PS, for the record this post is a shade more than 400 words, has 28 sentences and the average sentence length is a lean, mean 14.3