Friday, January 25

Counting Words: 16 Makes A Sentence

Almost every year, I set up the students in my Writing For Public Relations class by asking them “how many words does it take to write the optimum sentence?”

Inevitably, several will enthusiastically answer. Sixteen words!

“Ah ha!” I smile, walking a bit closer to anyone whose eyes might have drifted downward for lack of answer. “It’s always good to know who is reading the assigned chapters … and who might not be. I’m even more impressed that some of you have already committed that gem to memory.”

“Too bad though. That answer is absolutely WRONG.”

Seriously, if it wasn’t for the fun discussion that Doug Newsom’s text has provided me for the last several years, I would instruct the students to immediately leaf over to page 96 (depending on what version), tear the page out, and destroy it before the nasty notion that sixteen words makes a magic sentence sinks in.

Newsom got the idea from Robert Gunning, author of The Technique of Clear Writing, who noted that most modern prose read by the public has an average sentence length of 16 words. Thus, he concludes, if your sentences are much longer than that, you are likely to be diminishing readability.

“How many words does it take to write the optimum sentence?”

As many as it takes to clearly communicate your point. Period. If it takes one word, do that. If it takes 13,955 words, er, it’s likely to be too long, but you never know. It worked for Jonathan Coe. (Previous contenders for the world’s longest sentence include William Faulkner and James Joyce.)

Of course, I forgive Newsom for several paragraphs of misrepresenting sentence lengths, but only because he pays tribute to Albert Einstein who wrote one of the shortest sentences in a scientific paper.

“If, for instance, I say, ‘That train arrives here at 7 o’clock,’ I mean something like ‘The pointing of the small hand of my watch to seven and the arrival of the train are simultaneous events.”

You cannot be much more clear than that, although others in the scientific community may have needed several pages or even books to explain the same. Interesting stuff, this language.

All of this touches on some blog banter, back and forth, with Valeria Maltoni on the economy of language. Most recently, she cited her appreciation for Reader’s Digest, noting that David Ogilvy did too. Ogilvy, for those who don’t know, is one of my favorite greats among advertising copywriters.

Memorable writing does tend to be simple, and not just for copywriters. As I said there: very often, the only reason writers are not able to discuss complex subjects in simple terms is because they either do not understand it themselves, live within a confined industry ecosystem, or try too hard to be clearly brilliant when all they really need to do is be brilliantly clear.

Of course, none of this really means that we must all become Hemingway. Economy of language means thinking about what you write. No matter what the purpose, the burden of communication best remains with the writer and not the reader.

This seems to be the very reason that James Michener struggles over his words, stopping to retype everything four, five, and six times. And, from the opposite end of the spectrum, it seems to be why William Saroyan used to throw things out because they weren’t great. That is, until one day, he realized it didn’t need to be great.

It needed to be clear.

Clarity and word counts are not the same thing. Although G. Donald Gale, with whom I once sat on a panel discussion about writing, was fond of saying even Winston Churchill said short words are the best words

There might be something to that, though I am probably more apt to say the best words are the right words, every time. Because, after all, there are no rules. Not really.



Sweet Tea on 1/25/08, 5:55 PM said...

Thanks Rich. You made me recall one of my college professors. This was a Sociology class although one might have thought it was communications. She believed in being concise. I, believing myself to be a good writer, was hurt when she tore apart my papers. I did learn quickly and managed to survive but I learned a lot from her. Maybe she should have taught communications?

Rich on 1/25/08, 6:12 PM said...

Hey Jane,

I think good writing applies in any discipline. So it's great to hear she raised the bar in sociology.

I felt the same way in college. At first I thought my advanced reporting teacher would have me thrown out of the program for all his deductions, turning 'A' stories into 'F' scores. Now I credit him for some well deserved kicks in the butt that I'm happy to pass on.

Of course, I softened up a bit (not in the scores so much) by stressing that grades belong to the work and not the person.

Besides, writing is harder than it looks. I demonstrated it the other night by giving them sentences with two word options (eg. who and whom). Of 8 questions, the 'majority' got only one right.


Rich on 1/26/08, 9:33 AM said...

One quote I didn't manage to include yesterday comes from sportswriter Red Smith.

"I have know writers who paid no damned attention to the rules of grammar and rhetoric and somehow made the language behave for them." — Red Smith

Of course, there something else to consider about this and I told my class. It's always best to know the rules before you bend and break them. While there are no rules in advertising, Associated Press Stylebook is one of several must haves for any writer. :)


Valeria Maltoni on 1/26/08, 10:25 AM said...

It really was a useful discussion to have, Rich. I tend to believe that things shake out to the middle over extremes. My sentences tend to be long by and large -- the product of an education in high Italian. We all know it takes twice as long to say anything in romance languages : )

The other component is for the writer to find her voice. That counts a lot more than fixed rules. With a caveat, as you point out, learning the rules is alays time well spent.

Sweet Tea on 1/26/08, 10:33 AM said...

I don't know how you do that! You can make the simplest sentence a beautiful thing. I love your writing.

Do you write poetry also?

Rich on 1/26/08, 4:11 PM said...

@Valeria You're sentences may be long at times, but they are always well crafted and carry more meaning than number the number of words used. Maximum effect for minimal means, as they say.

You're right about finding a voice, with exception to our public relations counterpoints, which tends to be an exercise in loosing one's voice. Advertising too, of course.

@Jane, I have no doubt that Valeria could if she set her hand at it. While I always get eye rolls for it, I highly recommend writers take at least one poetry class. Understanding meter can make a difference.

Anonymous said...

Writing isn't just about the words. It has physical, mental, and spiritual components.

(related post coming soon at the ill-hyped, non-monetized, poorly-read Occam's RazR.)

Rich on 1/26/08, 8:16 PM said...

Hey Ike,

Of course they do, but that takes time to develop. It may even be the dividing line between talent and skill.

I for one look forward to any "ill-hyped, non-monetized, poorly-read Occam's RazR" post.


Anonymous said...

nightbird says

This is exceptionally good advise. The reason for writing is to communicate and no matter how perfect the writing, it is nothing if it doesn't do that. I agree before you can break them you have to learn the rules, but taught improperly the writer is hesitant to find that voice by breaking rules. Only when you have the input of someone else do you truely know if you communicated what you intended, and that is the last step in marking your work with an individual flavor.

Michael J. Kannengieser on 1/28/08, 6:22 AM said...

Hi Rich,
I write an entire manuscript, then I read it aloud. That's when I discover all of the awkward sentences and unnecessary words. Still, I have to be true to my "voice" and to my characters. I'm not perfect, and I learn all the time. Your article here is one I can take a lot from. Thanks. - Mike.

Anonymous said...

Nightbird adds

I learned the reading outloud trick a while ago. When I read a story I have several rules. If you run out of breath before you finish the sentence, its too long. If you have to stop and untangle a phrase, its too complicated. If you see four repitations of the same word (other than it, he she etc) three of them have to change. And most of all, if it doesn't flow for you when you read outloud, it won't for anyone else.

I'd reccomend reading your writing outloud whatever the format since its an excellent way of bypassing one kind of sense and applying a different one

Rich on 1/28/08, 3:12 PM said...

Hey Nightbird and Mike,

Absolutely. Reading out loud is a great way to check your work. It helps you hear how the words flow. Excellent advice.

Some others include using a ruler to scan line by line or reading backward to focus in on spelling.

Taking the work off the screen (printing) also helps when you have time.

I'm glad you both found this useful. I've enjoy reading both of your work. Keep it up!


Anonymous said...

16 words makes a sentence might have been a useful strategy at one point in time. However, what we should really stick into our heads is that creativity cannot be bottled up by standards or number of words. And this goes for all the other stuffy and stuck up rules out there. While they might be useful, it all depends on knowing when to use them.

Anonymous said...

I think "16 makes a sentence" might have been useful at one point in time, However, I don't think that we should be tied down by one rule. Creativity cannot be bottled up by standards or by 16 words. This also goes for all the other rule books out there. What's important is knowing what and when to give specific treatments.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. I have a lawyer friend whose sentences are admirably short but need studying to get to the meaning. So your point about clarity is one we should all take.

Rich on 1/29/08, 4:39 PM said...

Hey Jim and Jen,

Really, you are both right on all counts. Too short or too long or whatever someone defines a perfect sentence, I always go back to the same: it's the one that clearly communicates the meaning. :)


Anonymous said...

What you have written here is truly fantastic. I've been trying to explain this theory to friends of mine, but haven't quite found a good way of explaining it. Then you write this! Brilliant, really. Thank you so much. I'll be sending this to my friends.

Rich on 3/13/09, 4:49 PM said...

Thank you Riley. I am glad it could benefit you.

Alexis Wilke on 1/6/11, 8:16 PM said...

Hi Rich,

So... Could you resume your blog post in 16 words?

Thank you for the reminder. I appreciated your article.

Rich on 1/7/11, 8:30 AM said...


I could, but that doesn't mean it would be any clearer or effective. :)

I might revisit this topic again. I haven't been writing about writing as much lately and I'm not sure why.

All my best,

Karen on 6/24/13, 9:48 PM said...

“Too bad though. That answer is absolutely WRONG.”

Sounds like an oxymoron.


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