Keep It Brief! (4 Ways to Shorten Sentences)
  • 3-minute read
  • 16th January 2017

Keep It Brief! (4 Ways to Shorten Sentences)

Some authors love long sentences. In ‘The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship’, for example, Gabriel Garcia Marquez managed to string together 2,156 words in a single sentence.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: writer of long sentences and wearer of snazzy hats. (Photo: F3rn4nd0/wikimedia)
Gabriel Garcia Marquez: writer of long sentences and wearer of snazzy hats.
(Photo: F3rn4nd0/wikimedia)

Garcia Marquez is a Nobel Prize winning writer, though, so he can get away with that kind of thing. In academic and business writing, you’re usually better off keeping things concise. As such, when editing your work, it often pays to shorten sentences.

Technique #1: Eliminate Redundancies

Words that don’t add anything to a sentence are often redundant. For example:

It’s important to plan ahead if you want to avoid unexpected surprises and unintentional mistakes.

Here, there are three redundancies: ‘plan ahead’, ‘unexpected surprises’ and ‘unintentional mistakes’. This is because planning always involves thinking ahead, surprises are always unexpected, and mistakes are always unintentional.

We could therefore shorten the sentence by removing the redundant terms:

It’s important to plan if you want to avoid surprises and mistakes.

Technique #2: Avoid Padding

As well as redundant words, try to avoid padding phrases in your writing. A common example of this in academic writing is ‘in my opinion’:

In my opinion, shorter sentences are easier to follow.

The phrase ‘in my opinion’ doesn’t add anything here: the reader will know it’s your opinion because you wrote it! It could therefore be cut without changing the meaning:

Shorter sentences are easier to follow.

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Other common padding phrases include things like ‘as a matter of fact’, ‘as far as I’m concerned’ and ‘at the end of the day’. In addition, be careful not to use several words when one word would do (e.g. saying ‘at the current time’ rather than just ‘now’).

Technique #3: Break Up Long Sentences

If a sentence feels too long, you could break it up. For example, while we could write:

Long sentences are difficult to follow, which may even mean that the reader forgets how a sentence started by the time they get to the end, and, if you use too many long sentences, they will struggle to comprehend what you’re saying!

It would be clearer to rephrase it as three separate, shorter sentences:

Long sentences are difficult to follow. The reader may even forget how a sentence started by the time they get to the end. Consequently, they will struggle to comprehend what you’re saying if you use too many long sentences!

Technique #4: Using the Active Voice

Another tip is using the active voice to shorten sentences. The passive voice (i.e. using the thing being acted upon as the subject of a sentence) can lead to constructions such as:

The conclusions are supported by the experimental data.

By comparison, the active voice can be clearer and more concise, since there’s no need for the additional helper verb ‘are’:

The experimental data supports the conclusions.

Mixing It Up

Although concision is important, there’s nothing wrong with using longer sentences occasionally. The best method is thus to vary sentence length in your writing, keeping in mind that shorter sentences are clearer and punchier when you need to make a forceful point.

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