How many words should there be in a sentence?

I’m a big believer in short sentences.

One of the first exercises we do at my workshops is to take some examples of really long sentences. These come from various sources – a website, a newsletter, an email and a newspaper story. They range from 50 to nearly 80 words long.

Once we’ve read them out (which often leaves participants gasping for breath), I ask everyone to have a go at rewriting them. Sometimes, this takes a long time as people first have to unravel what the offending sentences are actually trying to say. When they do work it out and rewrite it in shorter sentences, the effect is miraculous and clarity improves no end.

Short sentences simply make it much easier for readers to understand what you are trying to say.  If your sentences are long and meandering, your reader might struggle to understand the point. They might have to re-read it several times, which is a waste of their time. They might misunderstand your sentence. They might even give up and start reading something else.

The reason that long sentences can be confusing for readers is that there is often too much going on in them.  These sentences have too many ideas or too much information for the reader to handle in one go.

If you are prone to writing long complicated sentences, try switching to shorter ones instead. Your writing will improve in a heartbeat.

So what’s the maximum number of words to have in a sentence?

A quarter of a century  ago, when I was a trainee journalist, I was told that sentences shouldn’t be any longer than 30 words. This is something I have found incredibly useful ever since. Once you get to 30 words, take a look at what you have written. Rework it so that you make a second sentence, or even a third.

Should all my sentences be 30 words, then?

No. Remember that 30 words is a MAXIMUM – and many of your sentences should come in well under that.  If your average sentence is 20ish words, that’s fine.  For vigorous, interesting, stylish writing, vary the length of your sentences.  Include a few that are five or six words as well, for impact.

Try it!