What’s the right sentence length?

A friend once asked me how many words to use per sentence. An awkward question. Usually, he was a man of many words, so I told him: “Better keep it short.”

But he had been commissioned to write an article and insisted on an exact answer: “How many words per sentence? On average?” I suggested 18 – the devil is in the detail.

Useful advice?

To my surprise I later saw this suggestion in a plain English guide. It didn’t explain how they had reached the figure of 18. Other writing manuals give similar advice, sometimes providing a number, often between 10 and 22, and sometimes offering suggestions such as “try to keep sentences short and succinct”.

Is this advice useful for marketing and corporate communications? I don’t think so. Keeping sentences short speeds the text up. That may be useful, but unfortunately a sequence of short sentences can sound like “Ta, ta, ta. Ta, ta, ta. Ta, ta, ta.” A machine gun. It gets boring quickly and turns your reader off.

The spice of life

Variation is the spice that makes your words come alive. For example, you can write in the style of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth: short-short-short-long, sounding like “Ta, ta, ta, dah.”

5thWriting is composing. You need rhythm. You need melody. It’s classical, but if you prefer music hall, you can go for “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay!”

So, what to do when your sentence gets too long, too wordy? Perhaps it’s caused by you trying to cram too many thoughts in one sentence. If that happens, you could follow one of my guidelines:

One thought per sentence. Get quickly to the point.