I hear a lot of conflicting advice on how to write sentences, and I bet you do too. Should you write short sentences, because they are easier to read? Should you write longer sentences because they sound more academic? Should you write a careful mix of sentences, because that creates good flow?
In this post, I’ll go through the various kinds of advice, and talk about when you should take it. None of the usual advice is bad per se–you just need to develop good judgement about when to apply it!
You might be here looking for basic information about writing sentences. I’ve talked about writing good sentences before, in 10 tips for more concise writing or Fixing that terrible sentence; and over on the Thesis Whisperer blog about De-stuffing your writing. We also write about these concepts in our books, particularly How to Fix your Academic Writing Trouble. Find out more about clear sentences on pp. 62-67; ‘parataxis’ and ‘hypotaxis’ (‘short’ and ‘long’ sentences!) on pp. 97-99; filler words on pp.101-104; and ‘hedging’ on pp. 119-122.
The research is interesting on shorter sentences vs longer sentences. Students rated simpler writing as ‘more intelligent’ in a study by Oppenheimer in 2005, whereas a famous study by Armstrong in 1980 found that faculty and journal reviewers associated more prestige with writing that was more complex. So audience and purpose matters too!
Shorter, simpler sentences are best, sometimes
Shorter, simpler sentences are easier and quicker to read. It’s less likely that your reader will get confused or bored if your sentences are short and snappy.
In a shorter, simpler sentence, it’s less likely that you will need to navigate complex decisions about whether to use commas or semi-colons. It’s easy to make common mistakes in long sentences like changing tense half way through, or not keeping all your verbs agreeing with the main noun. So shorter sentences can seem like a better option!
However, shorter sentences have limits too.
A straightforward sentence excludes the option to include interpolated phrases, extra information between commas or in brackets that give nuance to the main sentence. Short sentences can sound brusque, over-confident, or too general. Don’t value brevity over accuracy, politeness, or formality.
Academic writing is often talking about information that is complex, indefinite or super-specific: in other words, it is not simple, short and straightforward. Simple, short, straightforward sentences might cut out much of the information that you need in order to be correct.
Shorter sentences are less information dense than longer sentences, so they may not work as well when you have a lot of information to convey but only a limited number of words. Every sentence needs a subject (noun that the sentence is about), and a main verb (what the subject is doing), and you need to repeat this for every new sentence. A lot of short sentences therefore use up valuable words in abstracts and grant applications, especially if you only have 100 characters or 250 words!
When to use short, simple sentences
Shorter sentences are best for action items, documentation or methods where people have to follow your instructions. A clear, direct sentence is likely to lead to a clear, direct action!
Short, simple sentences are fantastic in emails, blogs and press releases, anything that people expect to skim read in a hurry.
Some people rewrite short, straightforward sentences to be longer and more flowery. If the sentence is just fine being short, leave it short. Don’t use unnecessary ‘filler’ words just to bump up your word count, you need that space for important information elsewhere!
Longer, more complex sentences are best, sometimes
Longer sentences allow you to include more information and more context. You have room to add descriptions, more data, or a complimentary point of view.
For example, you might need to add ‘hedging’ phrases to avoid overstating certainty; include definitions or translations in the text; or supply more context, data or nuance to be more exact.
Other scholars often write in longer sentences. So you may want to write like them, to show you belong. If you are in a discipline where you regularly quote the work of other researchers, the quotes are likely to be long too.
Longer sentences allow you to cram a lot of information into a small number of words. Many of the longest sentences I find in journal articles are being very efficient with words. List sentences, for example, might be 50+ words long, but allow the writer to cover a lot of ground with fewer words. Or a long sentence in a literature review might summarise a big argument, to show that the author is familiar with the ideas and contribution of a body of scholarship, without getting distracted from the main topic.
However, dense sentences are more difficult to read, and your reader can get tired, so don’t over use them. Only use complex sentences where your ideas merit it. Your reader might feel resentful if they are forced to read lots of challenging sentences when your information isn’t worth it.
When to use long, complex sentences
Long sentences are often needed when explaining complex theories, introducing uncertain or incomplete knowledge, or mobilising criticism of important scholars or common knowledge. Nuance, hedging, politeness and detail all require more words in the sentence.
Inclusive language often requires more words, the capaciousness of our inclusion often demands more capacious sentences.
If you need to cram a lot of information into a small space, to meet a tight word count, then a longer sentence can help you avoid repeating words.
Medium sentences are best, sometimes
A typical academic sentence is 25-35 words, and has a main clause and 1-2 subordinate clauses. (Subordinate clauses are those extra phrases you add in, perhaps separated by commas or brackets).
If you go through a journal article, you’ll notice that the majority of sentences look about the same. Or you can believe me, because I did go and count sentence lengths in articles from a range of disciplines. I do the work so you don’t have to!
A mix of sentence lengths is best, sometimes
Gary Provost gave the famous advice about varying your sentence length:
Write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music.Gary Provost, 1985, 100 Ways to Improve your Writing (link to Google Book)
Gary was writing about creative writing. ‘This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous.’ In academic writing, I honestly don’t care how long your sentences are, qua longness. But I do care if they are the right length for the job.
In other words, trying to ‘write music’ is important when the form of your writing, the pleasure of the shape of your writing, is the reason people are reading your work. When I write a poem, you can be damned sure I try to write music.
But in academic writing, we put the function of your writing first. Academic writing can be dull, obscure or technical, because sometimes the information I’m looking for is technical, and only interesting to a small group of fellow experts. That is a feature, not a bug!
So you need to be able to write short, medium and long sentences, but mostly you need to be able to write the right sentence for the information you want to convey.
In conclusion: Back when Academic Writing Trouble was published, I thought I’d said everything I could ever want to write about sentences. Two years later, it turns out I had a whole 1,200 words of extra nuance to add. With so much nuance, is is surprising that sometimes we need a few extra words in our sentences?