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Giving your copy the death(ly) sentence

What do a good copywriter and a liberal judge have in common? They both like short sentences.

To judge by much of the copy that I see in an average week, there are plenty of people who view long sentences as the epitome of the copywriter’s craft. I don’t. Let’s examine the case for the prosecution.

One, long sentences are harder to read

It’s true that a well-written sentence, of almost any length, can be easy, even pleasurable, to read. But this assumes that your reader has the time to sit back and be lulled by your mellifluous prose style.

Let’s be honest. It’s not going to happen. People are busy. They’ll read if you make it easy for them. But they’ll get bored and switch off if they look at a sentence that starts on one line and ends two or three lines further down the page.

Two, you get lost (and so does your point)

It’s very hard to write a simple sentence of more than 16 words using the active voice without interrupting the flow of the main clause with subordinate clauses or any punctuation. (It’s not impossible.)

But even if you can pull off this little parlour trick, you’re still forcing your reader to wade across a very wide river. More often, what happens is that you have two or three points you want to get across and they all get run together.

Three, they make added demands on your reader

If you’re writing for an international audience, many will only have English as their second language. That means long convoluted sentences will trip them up and force them to reread.

Is your market entirely made up of native English speakers? Then you may still be making assumptions about their willingness or ability to decode overlong sentences. So, let’s look at the solution.

The solution

First, let’s be clear: long sentences are not universally a bad thing. Just when they could be cut down. Or replaced by two or more shorter ones.

Read your work aloud

If you’re pausing for breath, your sentences are too long. Restructure them, teasing out the separate ideas and placing them in separate sentences.

Try to eradicate subordinate clauses from your copy

Even if you’re not familiar with the terminology, you’ll recognise these slippery little fellows every time. Why? One, the give-away comma-pairs that enclose them. Two, the draggy quality they impart to the writing they interrupt. Here’s an example…

MazCo, which was established in 1986, and is based in the heart of London’s financial district, helps its clients, who include household names in the UK and Europe, write shorter sentences.

Have a go at rewriting this. You should aim for a minimum of three sentences (four would be better).

Consider sentence fragments

Sentence fragments may be frowned upon in literary circles. Though not always. But they are a valuable tool in your copywriter’s bag of tricks. So don’t be afraid to ignore what Mr Doggett told you in fourth year English.

Sentences (or at least those phrases topped with a capital letter and tailed with a full stop) don’t need verbs. (I can hear the shrieks from the traditionalists as I write this, but hey, they don’t have to earn a living parting people from their money using nothing but writing.)

The ideal length

Do you want a “rule”? How about this: aim for an average of 16 words per sentence. That’s the level at which most people can understand the meaning of a sentence in one go.

Categories: Grammar and Maslen on Marketing.

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