Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Keep sentences and paragraphs short

The average sentence length of a readable, clear piece of legal writing ought to be about 20 words. And I mean average. Some sentences should be shorter and some longer. Variety counts and makes text more readable.

So I aim for an average of 20 words and a maximum sentence length of 45 words. But the truth is, the more I write, the shorter my average sentences get and the shorter my longest sentences get. I’m probably at about 15 and 35 now.

I keep my paragraphs short, too. Probably too short for some tastes. The only rule I’m willing to give here is that if you are double-spacing, a paragraph that is one page long is too long. Varying the length of paragraphs is important, too. Variety seems to help readers stay engaged.

And yes, the occasional one-sentence paragraph can be effective.

Most people who hear me preach about short sentences and short paragraphs don’t argue with me, but I know some think I’m just trying to convert legal writing into baby talk. Some surely think I’m not talking about real legal documents like briefs or contracts. And some probably think my message is for others--others who can’t write long, elegant sentences or who can’t develop full, deep paragraphs. (Of course, we often think writing advice is for someone else.) But I’m talking to you. Yes, you.

Why am I willing to risk sounding like a baby-talker? Why do I smile when the average sentence length of my document dips below 15 and the average reading level of my document dips below the 10th grade?

I have finally let go of the idea that long sentences are sophisticated or intellectual. I have stopped believing that short sentences reflect a simple mind. Instead, I believe short sentences reflect care for the reader. I believe short sentences and paragraphs reflect a writer’s confidence, a writer’s mastery of the material, and a writer’s efficient use of the language.

There’s nothing wrong with a long, well-written sentence or a long, thoroughly developed paragraph. But when you use a lot of them, you will make your document harder to read. Besides, often it’s actually harder to be both clear and brief, or what we might call succinct. But the effort is worth it to the reader.

Note: The average sentence length in this post is 13.5 words and the longest sentence is 31 words. The grade level is 8th.

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