If you’re a writer looking to capture and maintain a reader’s attention, then it’s important you think critically about the length of your sentences.
In some situations, for example, you may think your writing achieves the best flow with multi-lined sentences held together by numerous conjunctions. But a strong flow doesn’t matter if your reader has already lost interest in what you’re trying to say.
Here are a few things to consider when creating short sentences, a key part of captivating your reader with a piece of writing.
1. Conjunctions help and hurt you.
Remember how your third-grade teacher told you never to begin a sentence with a conjunction? News flash: These days, your third-grade teacher is probably never going to read your copy. So, go ahead: Move those linking words — “and,” “or,” “also,” “but,” “so,” “then” and “plus” — to the fronts of your sentences.
When you start with a conjunction, you break long sentences into short ones and move your copy along at a brisker pace. This can keep your reader hooked.
However, conjunctions are also used to add clauses to sentences. This lengthens them and threatens to mess with the pace of your work.
If you notice that your sentences are too long, then type conjunction words into Microsoft Word’s “Find” function. When you spot them in the middle of your sentences, see if you can break those single sentences in multiple ones. When of my writing coaches tried this trick, she found the word “and” listed 23 times in a 500-word article. That’s a quick way to lose your reader’s attention.
2. Bullet points punctuate key ideas.
If you have a series of three or more items, then break them out of the sentence into a bulleted or numbered list. Readers perceive bullets as each being separate sentences and paragraphs.
This is especially important online, where readers skim even more than they do in print. In one test, usability expert Jakob Nielsen made a web page 47 percent more usable by breaking copy up and lifting ideas off the page.
3. Sentence fragments heighten the drama.
Your third-grade teacher probably also counseled you to avoid sentence fragments. Wrong again. Sentence fragments can help you inject your writing with a sentence of drama while also making them shorter and tighter. They also can:
- Emphasize an important idea
- Change the pace of your piece
- Make your copy sound conversational
Still skeptical about sentence fragments? Pick up any book and turn a random page. Chances are the writer doesn’t strictly abide by all the rules of grammar and style.
These liberties have a time and place; for example, you probably wouldn’t want to pepper a case study or article with too many fragments. However, when used strategically, they can make your copy tighter and more interesting. Period.
Copyright © 2019 Ann Wylie. All rights reserved.
Ann Wylie (WylieComm.com) works with communicators who want to reach more readers and with organizations that want to get the word out. To learn more about her training, consulting or writing and editing services, contact her at ann@WylieComm.com.
Cut Through the Clutter
Would you like to learn more techniques for reaching readers with clear, concise copy? If so, please join PRSA and Ann Wylie at Catch Your Readers — a two-day Master Class on April 10-11 in Charleston, S.C. PRSA members: Save $100 with coupon code PRSA18. APRs: Earn four maintenance points.
I really enjoyed this take on using short sentences to captivate readers. I grew up loving to write for my English classes, so I am still learning to be concise in media writing. These tips are a great reminder that readers want to read sentences that are short and to the point. —Emma Bannen, writer/editor for Platform Magazine
I really enjoyed the ideas that were pitched in this article. As someone who has recently started a blog, one of the main things that I worry about is keeping readers entertained. The three ideas that are listed are things that I take into consideration when writing.
Even when reading other people’s work, I like articles to be short and to the point. When someone’s article has a lot of extra information, I think it is important for them to emphasize the important information. All three of her ideas listed are great tips for new writers, and for people who are interested in changing their writing style to captivate more readers.
I am someone who has a very hard time staying focused and on task. Having ADHD doesn’t help much either. It gives me great joy that short sentences are encouraged in the media world. I am able to understand and fully digest the main points without feeling overwhelmed by tons of information. On the flip side, I enjoy writing very detail oriented sentences. Reading this article has given me tips on how to stay clear and concise.