business writing in the digital age

Keep it short, but mix it up

Short sentences are easier to read. But many of us learned to write long sentences in what Natalie Canavor, author of Business Writing in the Digital Age, calls “pre-20th century writing.” The best writing mixes sentence lengths for variety, rhythm, and better comprehension.

Modern and historical sentence lengths

Canavor lists the following sentence lengths in her book:

  • 7-10 words for spoken sentences
  • 14-22 words, on average, for the most understandable written sentences
  • 23 words in the late 19th century
  • 29 words in Victorian times
  • 45 words in Elizabethan times
  • 50 words in pre-Elizabethan times

Sentences are getting shorter. As they shrink, so does readers’ patience with long-winded writing.

Variety is good, too

Short is good, but line after line of short sentences may bore your readers.

I agree with Canavor’s advice to keep your sentences short on average. In an example she cites in her book, the sentence length of several paragraphs averages 17.9 words. However, “one sentence is 41 words long and a few are less than 10 words.” This can work if the long sentence is properly crafted.

Test your writing

How long do YOUR sentences run? Take something you’ve written recently and calculate the average sentence length. It’s easy to do in Microsoft Word using its readability statistics. Other word-processing software offers similar capabilities.

By the way, the average sentence length in this blog post is 11.5 words.

Good book for novice business writers

I like Business Writing in the Digital Age as a resource for novice business writers. It has lots of practical tips, examples, and writing exercises.