On editing your sentences down to size

I was reading the 30th Anniversary Edition of “On Writing Well” today and a certain paragraph jumped out at me. In reference to an example paragraph in the text, William Zinsser writes (p.262):

Each sentence contains one thought – and only one. Readers can process only one idea at a time, and they do it in linear sequence. Much of the trouble that writers get into comes from trying to make one sentence do too much work. Never be afraid to break a long sentence into two short ones, or even three.

I can’t tell you how often I cut sentences down into multiple sentences while editing. Pieces I review will often contain numerous sentences with four or five clauses. Too many clauses make for long sentences. Long sentences lose modern readers. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

Often times, nearly everyday, while I’m at work, I edit a piece that would be so much stronger if it had less commas, fewer ideas, and just a few less unnecessary words in general that are, on average, repetitive ideas anyway.

My brain feels tired after a few hours of editing sentences like the above. Are you guilty of writing like this? I am too. I encourage you to look through your current writing project. Find the sentences with too many ideas in them. Edit them down to size.



4 thoughts on “On editing your sentences down to size

  1. sarah

    I think your statement, “Long sentences loose modern readers.” is telling. In our age of twitter and text we have shortened every thing down to a minimum. Having read Jane Austen, Louis Lamour and others from that era, the beauty of longer sentences with descriptive adjectives seems to be a lost an unappreciated art. Makes a Grandmother say hummmmm………….

    1. Andrew Rogers Post author

      I’m sure you’re right. I’ve not read either Austen or L’amour, but I’ve read other writers from earlier eras that frequently used longer sentences. They were a challenge for me.

  2. Erin Bartels

    Since I work in copywriting, I’m ALWAYS editing sentences down to size. However, I think because I do that all day long for work I am tempted to leave nice, long, flowy sentences in my creative writing. And as long as a reader follows, I leave them. When my first reader (always my husband) reads over something I’ve written and marks a sentence he got lost in, I fix it. But I think sentence length should vary. Too many short sentences all in a row with no long one to break them up feel pedantic and plodding. I think the rhythm an author strikes with sentence length adds to their unique voice. Also, I think it depends on the audience you’re writing to. Suspense? Yes. Short sentences. Literary? Let yourself enjoy a long sentence here and there as long as it makes sense and is not so convoluted people have to read it three times and still don’t understand what you’re saying. :)

    1. Andrew Rogers Post author

      Thanks for your comments. I agree that different audiences and genres will (and should) affect the length of sentences in a piece of writing. A writer’s voice is also important to maintain as you pointed out.

      The long sentences that need editing usually contain redundant ideas or unnecessary details. Or they just flat out abuse the comma by combining too many thoughts into one sentence.

      I’m going to start an awareness group for commas. No more abuse!


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