Category Archives: number of words per sentence

Imitate classic sentences, part 2

Several weeks ago I wrote a blog about improving sentence construction by copying sentence structures of good writers.  (See my blog “Imitate classic sentences to improve your writing. ) The type sentences I discussed then were cumulative sentences, sometimes called additive sentences, which informally add more information as the sentence goes on, as this sentence does.

Today I would like to discuss copying the structure of more formal sentences created by careful planning.  They “breathe” conviction and confidence, according to Stanley Fish, author of How to Write a Sentence.

One example is the opening sentence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:  “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”  Another such sentence is the first sentence of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:  “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Still another is the opening clauses of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities:  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  These sentences encourage the reader to pause and consider their meanings for truth, for irony, and for insight.

How can you create your own such sentences?  According to Fish, you should analyze sentences you recognize as great, remove the content and fill in the structure with your own content.  (It’s like baking a potato, scooping out the center, and then filling the skin with your homemade chili.)  To do this, Fish advises you to

  • write short sentences.
  • use parallel structures.
  • use one- or two-syllable words
  • use the present tense.

Here are some examples I wrote:

“When taking a trip with kids, go to playgrounds first before you run out of sunny days and sunny spirits.”  Let’s analyze this sentence using Fish’s advice.

  • Write short sentences.  20 words
  • Use parallel structures.  “sunny days and sunny spirits”
  • Use one- or two-syllable words.  14 one-syllable words, 6 two-syllable words, 0 three-syllable words
  • Use present tense.  Done

Here is another.  “Keep your children close and your spouse closer.”

  • Write short sentences.  8 words
  • Use parallel structure.  “Keep your children close and [keep] your spouse closer.”
  • Use one- or two-syllable words. 6 one-syllable words, 2 two-syllable words, 0 three-syllable words
  • Use present tense.  Done

And another:  “When soldiers drill from dawn to dusk on borders dense with tanks and such,  beware of Trojan horses.”

  • Write short sentences:  18 words
  • Use parallel structure.  “from dawn to dusk,” “with tanks and such”
  • Use one- or two-syllable words.  13 one-syllable words, 5 two-syllable words, 0 three-syllable words
  • Use present tense.  Done

When could you use such sentences?

  • the opening sentences of a novel, short story, or speech
  • the closing of a letter or an article or a chapter
  • a “gotcha ya!” retort from a character or yourself
  • the moral of a story

According to Fish, the more you write these sentences, the easier you write them.  And the easier they become, the more you use them.  (Did you notice?  I just wrote two of them.)

Rules Hemingway wrote by

Did you watch the new PBS documentary on Ernest Hemingway which premiered on Monday?  If so, you heard Hemingway say “the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing” came from the Kansas City Star stylebook. He reported for the Star 1917 to 1918.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.Here are some of those rules:

  • Use short sentences.
  • Use short first paragraphs.
  • Use vigorous English.  [Use active verbs.]
  • Be positive, not negative.
  • Never use old slang.  Slang, to be enjoyable, must be fresh.
  • Watch your sequence of tenses.  [Be consistent.]
  • Don’t split verbs.  [Put adverbs before a verb phrase.]
  • Be careful of the word “also.”  “Also” modifies the word it follows, not the word it precedes.
  • Be careful of the word “only.”  “He only had $10” means that he alone had $10.  “He had only $10” means $10 was all the cash he had.
  • Don’t split infinitives.
  • Avoid using adjectives, especially extravagant ones.
  • Use “none is,” not “none are.”
  • Animals should be referred to with the neuter gender unless the animal is a pet with a name.
  • Break into a long direct quote early in the quote to identify the speaker.
  • Avoid expressions from a foreign language.
  • Collective nouns take singular verbs.

Coherence, the most important element in writing

Writing well requires following certain steps in sequence:

  • Narrowing your topic
  • Organizing your information, including writing an overarching topic sentence or thesis and subtopic sentences or plot lines
  • Writing a first draft
  • Revising, revising, revising
  • Editing

Once your first draft is complete, revising becomes most important.  So many tasks comprise revising—checking for complete sentences, tightening wordiness, analyzing ideas for logic, honing vocabulary, fixing grammar errors, adding figures of speech and style.  Students wonder where to begin.

Begin with coherence, the most important element of writing.  Coherence means making sure all your sentences make sense and flow from one to another.  Coherence means making sure your readers understand what you mean—easily, at first read, without an interpreter.

How do you do that?  Some ways include:

  • Make sure every sentence in the body paragraphs supports the thesis. If you use an anecdote, make sure it is an example of the ideas in the thesis.  If you use a simile or metaphor, make sure it fits with the topic.  If the topic is igneous rock, for example, the simile “as hot as the steam from a steam boat” is off topic, whereas “as hot as a lava lake” is on topic.
  • If you use numbers (three kinds of rocks, five members of my family, one favorite memory), check that you have named all the numbers and no more.
  • Use logical transitions. “Because” means something causes something else.  Make sure you have named a cause and an effect if you use “because.”  “Finally” means the last one in a series or the last point.  If you have only two or three points, you shouldn’t use “finally.” You should use “secondly,” or “next,” or “third.”
  • If you use a pronoun, make sure you have named the noun the pronoun refers back to. And make sure you have named that noun before you use the pronoun (not “When she fell, Mary broke her arm,” but “When Mary fell, she broke her arm.”  If you use “this,” make sure your reader can know in a word or phrase what “this” refers to.  If “this” is vague or complicated, add a noun after “this” (this situation, this erosion, this loss of interest).  If you have two women talking, make sure if you use “she,” the reader knows which one you are referring to.  Otherwise, use her name or title or position.
  • Check that your sentences are complete thoughts–not fragments or run-ons.  Make sure your complex sentences contain no more than two dependent clauses so readers needn’t hold multiple ideas in their minds at once.  Check that your sentences vary in length, with most more than ten and fewer than 20 words.
  • Change your weak, vapid verbs to active, dynamic verbs.  Eliminate the verb “to be” and passive voice verbs.

If what you write lacks coherence, no matter how specific the vocabulary, no matter how beautiful the description, no matter how lofty your aim, your writing will flop.  Your writing must make sense to a reader without you standing at her elbow explaining, “Well, what I mean is. . .”

What percent of your sentences should be compound sentences?

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.

How many words are the right number of words?

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.