I came across an intriguing statistic in a book* for teachers of writing. A study of 20 well known writers, including Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck, showed they used compound sentences no more than nine percent of the time.
Or said another way, these classic American writers wrote simple and complex sentences more than 90 percent of the time.
Ever since, I have told my students to strive for a majority of complicated simple sentences. An uncomplicated simple sentence is good from time to time, especially after a long, complicated simple sentence or a long complex sentence. But too many uncomplicated simple sentences make writing seem childish.
What is an uncomplicated simple sentence? All the sentences in this paragraph are. What is a complicated simple sentence? All the other sentences in this blog except for the second sentence are.
Often you can tell an uncomplicated simple sentence by its length. It’s short, usually fewer than ten words.
*Notes Toward a New Rhetoric: Six Essays for Teachers by Francis Christensen, 1967.
Consider the following
- 300 words was the length of the average paragraph from the 1400s to the 20th century.
- 100 to 200 words is the length of the average paragraph today.
- 15 to 20 words per sentence is the average that experts recommend today.
- Of those 15 to 20 words, the ideal syllable count is 25 to 33 and the ideal character count is 75 to 100.*
- Gov.uk, the United Kingdom’s government website, promises it will not publish a sentence exceeding 25 words.
- 300 to 500 words is the desired length of most news stories for the Associated Press, according to a memo from editors in 2014.
I suspect the trend to write shorter paragraphs, shorter sentences, and shorter articles has to do with the inviting look of white space, as well as the decreasing attention span of readers.
White space—the kind shown here between paragraphs—makes writing look friendlier, and people are more apt to read friendlier writing.
A paragraph indentation has a bit of white space, but not much. For that reason, I think, the default spacing of computers gives extra white space between paragraphs. More white space means more friendly means more likely to be read.
When the newspaper USA Today first was published in 1982, it looked different from other newspapers: color graphics accompanied stories; bullets were used in place of or in addition to paragraph indentations; paragraphs were short. Some critics at the time called USA Today “McPaper or “television you can wrap your fish in” because, like TV news, its stories were short. Two years later USA Today had the second largest circulation of any US newspaper. Traditional newspapers were forced to incorporate a similar graphic style to compete.
I use bullets all the time, in part to add white space. The white space surrounding a bullet and the extra white space preceding every line of type that starts with a bullet adds readability to my text.
Using 1.15 spacing (not 1.0 spacing) between lines is another way to add readability. That extra smidgen of white space separates the lines of type just enough to make them more readable. My computer’s default spacing is 1.15, and yours probably is too.
How many words are the right number of words? The only thing certain is that the right number is smaller, much smaller, than in the past, and appears in a larger sea of white space.