Wordnerdery Sue Horner’s monthly tips on words and ways to reach readers (and sometimes other diversions) – January 2024

Issue 131 – January 2024


“Take a scalpel to long leads. Aim for fewer than 30 words. Cut unwieldy phrases.” – The Canadian Press Stylebook

Have you ever started reading something, and had to stop because you lost your way in a long, meandering sentence?

That’s what happened to me while reading a piece in my local newspaper.

The opening sentence rang in at 49 words. Eighteen of those words separated the subject (Black Pumas’ success) from the object (can be explained). That explanation took another 14 words to appear.

I ran it through the Hemingway Editor app, which highlights hard-to-read sentences in the pink hue you see here. It stated the obvious: “This sentence is too long and complex,” advising “Use shorter sentences and simpler words.”

There’s more. A brief eight-word sentence gave a breather – but just to prepare the reader for being pushed off the cliff of a 77-word sentence.

Those two killer sentences in the introductory section of the article gave it a post-graduate level of readability, which is to say not readable at all. The entire 1,340-word article did slightly better, with a “poor” ranking of Grade 16. (“Aim for 9,” Hemingway Editor suggests.)

Blend style with readability

I understand that columnists have a certain style, and I’ve noticed before that this person definitely likes a looooong sentence. (Is this showing style, though, or showing off?) And this was an entertainment piece, not a hard news story.

Still, “basic principles of journalism apply,” says The Canadian Press Stylebook. “The first sentence is supposed to lead the reader into the story.” So, “Take a scalpel to long leads. Aim for fewer than 30 words. Cut unwieldy phrases. Remove secondary information…and place it lower.”

Actually, an upper limit of 30 words is being generous. Research by the American Press Institute shows that the best length for understanding is an average of just eight to 14 words. Over 33 is about 30-39%. More than 43 results in zero to 9% understanding.

Plain language guidelines also note that “Nothing is more confusing to the user than long, complex sentences containing multiple phrases and clauses.”

One way to tackle that confusion is to keep the subject, verb and object close together. “When you put modifiers, phrases, or clauses between two or all three of these essential parts, you make it harder for the user to understand you.”

For my rewrite, I tried to keep some of the writer’s words, but shortened the sentences. I cut down or moved the many modifiers, phrases or clauses (such as “fickle, unpredictable and increasingly Taylor Swift-dominated free-for-all” and “somewhat off-the-cuff first experiment in collaboration”). I also removed some wording that seemed redundant or unnecessary (“a shrug and the metaphorical statement”).

Here's my rewrite:

Some of the sentences are still complicated, but less so. The rewrite cuts about one-third of the text for an average 15.7 words per sentence. Hemingway gives the section a reading level of Grade 10, still encouraging a reach for 9. StoryToolz gives it a reading ease of 71.2 out of 100, compared to the original text’s 40.1 out of 100.

As I always say, making something easier to read is being kind. It respects the reader’s time and helps them get the point faster – yes, even if you’re writing about music.

Have you seen a “before” piece of writing that needs an “after”? Please hit “reply” and share. I’m always looking for good (bad) examples.

Related reading:

How long should a sentence be? Ann Wylie explains

Check readability with StoryToolz and Hemingway Editor

More in the Red Jacket Diaries:

AI and hallucinate top the 2023 Words of the Year

Top 10 posts in the Red Jacket Diaries in 2023

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