Long sentences, with no time off for good behaviour

The words are tumbling out beautifully for you. You are proud of that well-constructed, elegant and impressively long sentence. It’s sometimes even easier to write a long sentence than a short one. But if you want to be understood, beware: long sentences are much harder to read.

Readability research shows that long sentences make text more difficult for readers to absorb. If you’re finding a piece of writing hard to understand, or feeling increasingly tired reading it, the fault may not be yours. The writer might be making it more difficult for you.

Long sentences are difficult because of the way we read. Our short-term memory becomes over-filled with ideas, facts and images if a sentence is too long. Breaking a long sentence down into shorter sentences helps us to decode or process the writer’s meaning more easily — in bite-sized chunks, in fact.

If you realise that you’ve written a whole paragraph as one long sentence and decide to improve it, here are some pointers that might help:

  • Look out for connecting words like ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘if’ or ‘also’. They are usually the points at which new sentences can begin with a pronoun like ‘it’.
  • Try to vary the length of the shorter sentences, because the text can become monotonous otherwise. Variety tends to make text more interesting and readable.
  • For the same reason, don’t start all sentences with the same word, or use the same sentence structure.
  • Consider using a different layout or punctuation: if your long sentence is a list of similar items, use bullet points or a numbered list; add italics or bold (sparingly, please!) to emphasise certain key words or phrases; or use brackets to separate out less important bits of information or asides.

Try to avoid handing down long sentences to your readers — they won’t thank you for being forced to break those huge rocks into smaller ones.

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About Stephen Wellings

I am a publishing and training professional with over 30 years' editorial and senior management experience in companies such as McGraw-Hill, Pan Books, International Thomson, The Open College, Butterworth-Heinemann and Pergamon Open Learning. During my career I have commissioned and published hundreds of books and learning materials in science, technology, social science, business and management. I have designed, developed and published major distance learning programmes, including one of the world’s largest for ACCA, the professional accounting body. I am accomplished at delivering sizeable publishing and training projects on time, within budget and to exacting quality standards. In my spare time I promote live modern jazz in the Thames Valley, under the Jazz in Reading brand. I am also Co-chair of Reading Borough Council's Learning Disabilities Partnership Board.
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