How to shorten your sentences

Malini DevadasWriting

Overly long sentences are a common problem in academic writing. I say ‘overly long’, rather than just ‘long’, because we need a variety of sentence lengths in our writing, just as we do in our speech. Having every sentence super short makes writing sound choppy. However, a common barrier to comprehension is when every sentence is too long, so that’s what I’m focusing on here.

While there are entire university courses dedicated to the profession of editing, here are a few things to look for when too many of your sentences are too long.

  • Too many ideas in a sentence – In general, it is best if each sentence contains one idea. Look at your sentences carefully; you might notice that some have two or even three ideas crammed in there. If that’s the case, put each idea into a separate sentence and see if it is clearer.
  • Unnecessary introductory clauses – It is common to start sentences with introductory clauses that really say nothing and also delay the reader getting to the part of the sentence that is important. Things like, ‘As stated earlier, it has long been considered that’ and ‘It is of course important to bear in mind that’.‘ Am I say to never use introductory clauses like these? No. Of course, they have their place in varying sentence length (rhythm). But when every sentence starts with 10 words that say nothing, it makes the reader work harder than they need to.
  • Wordy phrases where one word will do — Somehow an idea has taken hold in academic writing that we need to ‘sound smart’ and that one way to do this is to use long-winded phrases rather than one word. For example, writing ‘has the ability to’ rather than ‘can’, or ‘by reason of the fact of’ rather than ‘because’. If your sentences are too long, replacing these phrases with a single word will help reduce your word count.

All of these things are perfectly normal when we’re writing our drafts. When writing it’s best to focus on the content and not get hung up on expression. While thinking about what we want to say, it’s normal to put in lots of filler words while we think or to put too many ideas in one sentence while we get our thoughts in order. The critical thing is to allow time for the editing phase so that we can remove those unnecessary words.

Most of us find it much easier to do these tasks on something that someone else wrote. This is not necessarily because we are better writers than others, but because it’s difficult to be objective about our own writing. I hope that now that know what you look out for, you can search for specific things and eliminate words that aren’t doing anything useful in your sentences.