Monday, July 29

How short?

After getting my third and final round of edits back on Pasha and Daniel (Hanging by the Moment) and seeing some of the editor's comments, I emailed one of the senior editors with a question about sentence length and punctuation. The sentence that precedes this one should give you a fair idea of why! Well...except it doesn't have any EM dashes or semicolons; those are two of my favorite forms of punctuation. Yes, I was actually making a point with that last sentence. As one of my editors pointed out, a semicolon can be used completely correctly and still be distracting.
The senior editor gave me some great advice and sent me a link to the following article, which is really eye-opening (especially when I started looking at exactly how long my sentences tend to run). I don't think many of them are actually "run-on sentences"--or at the very least, most are fairly grammatically correct--but I do tend to be a bit...wordy. And yes, I love punctuation way too much.
Anyway, here's the link:
In a nutshell, the average reader prefers sentences between 11 and 17 words long. Twenty is the ideal maximum. But beyond that, the average reader prefers sentences with words that average out 1.74 syllables each and have an average of 5.67 letters each. So. Sort sentences with very short words is the preference of the average reader. I'm really not sure I like what that says about us as a society, but what it says to me as a writer is that instead of using my thesaurus to find the best word to describe something, maybe I should be using it to find the shortest word.
Your thoughts?
PS--in light of the general insanity of the last month, July's newsletter won't be happening. August's will come out around the middle of the month (and I may switch to an every-other month model.)


Anonymous said...

In answer to your last comment, I think you should still look for the BEST word that expresses your thought; however, making sure that the sentences aren't so long that they trip up the reader isn't necessarily a concession to dumb readers. If, for instance, you're writing in the first person voice in a stream-of-consciousness sort of narrative, long, winding sentences may be called for. But in most cases you can help clarify the meaning by cutting out extraneous descriptions or cutting up the sentences by grouping similar thoughts. But as long as the meaning is clear and the cadence varied for interest, I say go for it! :)

Alicia Nordwell said...

I've never worried about the length of my sentences by specific word limits, just how they sound and are paced when spoken out loud. When you read a sentence that way it can be very obvious when it rambles or doesn't make sense. Unless you're doing a character that rambles, or your story style, like the stream of consciousness the other commenter mentioned, you want to avoid that.

As for picking your words, my view is pretty easy to sum up. The difference between '50 cent' words and '5 cent' words is not just length, but also pretention and readability. Cerise and ruby are pretty much the same color of pinkish red, but which one will the majority of readers be able to picture?

I've been told my style of writing is simplistic, but I'm okay with that. I don't want to share a story that a reader has to struggle through.