How Many Words Should Your Sentences Contain?


Dear Honored Readers,

How long should a sentence be? I love the quote from Joyce Griffith, Griffith Publishing “How long should a sentence be? As long as it needs to be but no longer.” http://jgwritingtips.wordpress.com/2010/02/17/how-long-should-a-sentence-be/

In the opening page of The Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens first paragraph is a sentence with over 100 words. Many sentences in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling are near 40 words.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said, sentences should average 15-20 words and be no longer than 40 words:  http://www.epa.gov/plainlanguage/faqs.htm.

For newspapers, Christy Rakoczy says a sentence should not have more than 25 words: http://www.yourdictionary.com/grammar/grammar-rules-and-tips/tips-for-writing-in-a-newspaper.html.  In Grammar Girl‘s Quick and Dirty Tips.com, Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, said that sentences longer than 30-40 words should be trimmed: http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/sentence-length.aspxEmma Darwin wrote an article in praise of the long sentence: http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/2008/09/in-praise-of-the-long-sentence.html. She says long sentences help a story to flow.  If readers are confused by your extremely long sentences, it won’t help your story to flow.

Long sentences that are not clear in meaning should be rewritten and simplified to engage your reader’s interest. In writing a long sentence it is important to have the subject and verb close to the front and the added clauses afterward.  The Yahoo Style Guide says to write the most important information at the front of the sentence and anchor all the rest to it:  http://styleguide.yahoo.com/writing/construct-clear-compelling-copy/sentences. If the meaning is not clear, perhaps the sentence is too long. That is what Mantex/Clifton Press said in 1995: http://www.mantex.co.uk/shop/improve-your-writing-skills/bad-writing/.

Torkil Christensen in his Writing Right Column on ELTNEWS.com entitled “Sentences, Paragraphs, How Long and How Many?” warns English Teachers in Japan against having too short of sentences. He says to have at least 10 words in each sentence: http://www.eltnews.com/columns/writing_right/2010/05/sentences_paragraphs_how_long.html.

If all the sentences in your story are the same length, I believe it might put your reader to sleep.  Having a short sentence after a few long ones, makes it stand out. It adds power.  Dialogue can be shorter sentences when you are showing intense moments, anger, disagreements.  No matter how long or short your sentences are, vary their length. Make sure your meaning is clear no matter how long you make your sentence.  If you have trouble remembering what your long sentence is about, chances are your readers will be clueless about it, too.

If you’re writing a children’s book, the older the child, the longer the sentence can be.  With picture books having the shorter sentences and the young adult having the longer sentences.  Reading 50 books similar to the one you’re writing is a good way to figure out the readability the book has to have.

I’ll leave you with these three quotes to further inspire you:

Thomas Jefferson said, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.

Charles Mingus said, “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

William Strunk and E.B. White said, “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word tell. “

I hope this view of how many words your sentences should contain was helpful to you. Please share your comments, questions, and/or resources below. I’d love to hear from you.

Thank you for reading my blog. Please sign up for an email subscription from the “Sign me up” block from the top of the left hand column.

Here’s a link to another post of mine about sentences:

“How to Write a Good Sentence:” http://joanyedwards.wordpress.com/2013/01/08/how-to-write-a-good-sentence/

Joan Y. Edwards, Author/Illustrator
http://www.joanyedwards.com/FlipFlapFloodle.htm
Flip Flap Floodle on Amazon.com

Copyright © 2010 Joan Y. Edwards. All rights reserved.

About these ads

13 Responses

  1. Joan,

    Poets and picture book authors produce works with concise writing. Every word is essential. Weak verbs are replaced with strong actions. Excessive adjectives and adverbs are omitted. No wonder these can be the most difficult works to write. Both genres model efficient word usage.

    Thanks for the reminder that varying sentence length can be powerful too.

    Linda A.

  2. Hi Joan,
    I enjoyed reading what a variety of people have to say about sentences. Couldn’t help but count some of them.
    BarbaraB

    • Dear Barbara, Thank you very much for stopping by and leaving your comment. I’m glad you enjoyed reading what a variety of people had to say about sentences. You said you counted. I decided to count, too. There were at least twelve referenced people: Joyce Griffith (Griffith Publishing), EPA, Christy Rakoczy, Bonnie Trenga, Emma Darwin, Yahoo Style Guide, Mantex/Clifton Press, Torkil Christensen, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Mingus, William Strunk and E.B. White. I also told about two writers who used long sentences: Charles Dickens and J. K. Rowling. I hope you’ll come back soon.

      Hop right to it

      Write – Draw – Explore – Dream – Research – Check out the lily pads available for you Joan Y. Edwards http://www.joanyedwards.com

  3. Joan, I agree. A sentence should be exactly as long as necessary to do its job, and not one word longer. :)
    Bob

    • Dear Dr. Bob,
      Thanks for writing. Don’t you love it when simplicity makes us laugh! Joyce Griffith said it first in her blog http://jgwritingtips.wordpress.com/2010/02/17/how-long-should-a-sentence-be/. That’s where I found her quote.
      All we have to figure out is if our sentence does it’s job or not.

      Celebrate your compassion and wisdom today.
      Joan Y. Edwards

  4. Aw, this was a really nice post. In thought I would like to put in writing like this moreover – taking time and actual effort to make a very good article… however what can I say… I procrastinate alot and by no means appear to get one thing done.

    • Dear Linnie,
      Thanks for writing. I’m glad you liked my “How Many Sentences Should Your Sentences Contain?” post. It was fun writing it. Try deleting the phrase: I procrastinate alot. Change your perspective, belief, and expectations. Say “I write many blog posts about topics that are interesting to me and others. Try it. You’ll like it.

      Celebrate you and your gift of writing.
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards

  5. Hello, I do believe your site may be having web browser compatibility issues.
    When I take a look at your web site in Safari, it looks fine
    however, if opening in I.E., it has some overlapping issues.
    I simply wanted to give you a quick heads up! Other than that, fantastic site!

    • Dear Lakeisha,
      Sorry you’re having compatibility issues with internet explorer. That’s a bummer. Using Safari when you can is a good idea. Are you using an iPad or iphone? They have a WordPress app for iPad and iPhones and such.
      Thanks for writing. I hope you enjoy reading what you find here.
      Celebrate you!
      Never Give UP!
      Joan Y. Edwards

  6. Dear Joan,

    This is great stuff. Now that I found you, I won’t let you get away.
    Please continue furnishing us with blogs like this that really answer the question. I am impressed.

    Best wishes,
    Cayuqui

    • Dear Cayuqui,
      Thanks for writing. I’m glad you liked my post about how many words should your sentences contain. I hope you’ll subscribe to my blog from the left hand column when you’re reading it.

      Celebrate you and your writing,
      Never Give Up
      Joan

  7. Dear Dr. Bobby Kin Ross,
    Thank you for writing. I’m glad you have found my blog to be useful.

    Celebrate you.
    Never Give Up
    Joan Y. Edwards

I love hearing from you. Please tell me your first name. Children 14 & older may comment (COPPA Law).

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,700 other followers

%d bloggers like this: