It was horror at first sight.
I remember the day clearly; I believe it was last July. I had just turned on the computer to begin the day’s editing, and I met one of the longest, ungainliest sentences I have ever had the displeasure to see:
I wish I could say that a 71-word sentence like that is a hearty and elegant thing—but it isn’t. It’s more like a cobbled-together monster that stumbles from Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory and runs headlong into the darkness. Quick! Grab your editorial pen and let’s track it down.
When Bad Sentences Happen to Good Content Writing
It’s pretty clear that the longer the sentence, the greater the risk of losing the reader along the way. Content writers for professional websites generally recognize this as self-evident, so why do they write sentences that are too long? Nobody has a definitive answer, but we can consider a couple of strong possibilities:
- Fear of simplicity. The writer doesn’t want to be seen as a shallow thinker. It seems like an easy way to show complexity by joining two sentences with a conjunction or a semicolon, and then adding a dependent clause here or a parenthetical thought set off by dashes there. Soon enough, the sentence has bloated to over 50 words and is a triumph of obfuscation.
- Wanting to impress. Call it the “smarty-pants factor”: the writer wants to send the message that he is clever. He starts using long and unusual words that are beyond the vocabulary of his readers…or maybe even phrases in foreign languages. The fact that he’s all too often misusing these novel words is beside the point. His sentences become twisted mazes of meaning, where the purpose seems as much to puzzle the reader as to communicate something meaningful.
You’re thinking, “Does this ever really happen?” It sure does. Here are some examples from our vaults of sentences that just run on, and on, and on. As usual, we’ve filed off some of the identifying features to prevent embarrassing the guilty parties:
- “Now, just because your doctor is being thorough doesn’t mean he’s intentionally preventing accurate care; however, if you feel that your pain, injury or illness hasn’t been correctly diagnosed or treated in a reasonable amount of time, or that you may be given the run around with tests and diagnostics, seek a second opinion and contact an experienced lawyer to discuss your case for medical malpractice.” 66 words
- “For instance, in one lawsuit, Food Lion (who in the personal injury industry is notorious for trying to deny valid claims), offered a low amount on a straightforward slip and fall case, involving our client slipping on wet liquid that because of their negligence was in their aisle and hadn’t been cleaned up or even spotted by an employee of the defendant.” 62 words
- “We can help you decide on which treatment options you need to include in your claim, what damages need to be compensated, help you file your claim and fight to make sure you receive the settlement you deserve to not only cover the costs of your current treatments, but also the costs of future care and recompense for any other damages you may have suffered.” 65 words
- “For example, if they failed to have adequate staff to control the crowd, to have a bouncer or security guard present, or to have adequate lighting in all public areas, then it might be worth finding out if the owners of the bar or club may have been negligent in their duty to keep you safe from reasonably foreseeable harm.” 60 words
This is not to say that long sentences should never be used in content writing—but they should never be casually used. They must be placed thoughtfully.
Sentenced to Senselessness
Never forget that the purpose of content writing is to communicate with your readers. You want to inform them in an engaging way, convince them that you are appropriately knowledgeable for their needs, and close the sale by helping them make the transition for casual readers to clients or customers. (Incidentally, that sentence was 36 words long). Including too many lengthy sentences severs, rather than strengthens, your connection to your readers.
The longer the sentence you write, the greater the chance that you will…
- Lose control of meaning. Each sentence should make one point. Ideally, that point will reinforce those in other nearby sentences to forge a persuasive paragraph. A long, complex sentence often abandons the goal of making one point and instead tries to engulf a huge range of ideas. The result: a vague cloud of notions rather than a focused conclusion.
- Lose your mastery of grammar. As a sentence grows, it becomes harder to keep track of whether the subject was singular or plural, if an adjectival clause is modifying the right noun, and what the tense and mood of the main verb is. Things get ugly.
- Lose your accumulated goodwill. Your audience wants to like you. If you go to extremes in showing that you’re smarter than they are, however, that rapport will soon curdle into resentment. Once your readers decide they dislike you, you have lost any chance to earn a favorable response for your business.
- Lose your audience. This is obvious, isn’t it? If your readers dislike you and can’t understand your message, there’s nothing keeping them on your website. They will go elsewhere for the information they need, and become clients and customers for your competitors.
We’ve said this before in a more kindly way, but here’s the bottom line: if you can’t or won’t write in a way that meets your audience expectations, you will lose business—and you will deserve to lose that business.
Seldom Is Heard a Discouraging Word
Fortunately, it’s not that hard to write lean sentences. Creative writing teachers have been pushing that as the ideal ever since Hemingway. The first step is to wean yourself away from some bad habits. Just because you know how to use a comma and a conjunction to weld two short sentences together doesn’t mean you must do so. Break up larger sentences into easily digestible morsels. Rein in—just a bit—your vocabulary of polysyllabic words.
Adopt a goal for sentence length. Varied sentence length is great for keeping your readers engaged, so we don’t want to trap you with rigid rules. Treat these as guidelines:
- Standard sentences. About 60 percent of your content should be 12 to 18 words in length.
- Longer sentences. Another 30 percent of what you write can run around 20 to 30 words in length.
- Exceptional sentences. You can play as you like with the remaining 10 percent of your writing. That doesn’t mean these should all be behemoth sentences. Short sentences make a special impact. Never—well, almost never—use a sentence over 40 words long.
Good writing for professional websites requires constantly balancing the demands of art and science. It’s surprising how often little details such as the ideal length for sentences can influence the overall impact of your marketing. At Foster Web Marketing, we’ve been collecting ideas for managing those “little details” for many years, and we’re glad to share them with you. No hard sell here: when you want help, you know how to reach us—the phone number is right there on your screen.