1 simple trick for writing clear sentences

Does your prose sometimes veer off the path and into the briers? Here’s help.

Have you ever seen a 5-year-old trying to learn to ride a bicycle? The bike wobbles, the child shrieks and then suddenly takes off. But one false move—a lean in the wrong direction or a bit of over-enthusiastic pedaling—and whoosh, she’s off too fast down the street and veering into the bushes with a thump and tears.

What writers and beginning bike riders have in common

I often think of 5-year-olds on bicycles when I read long sentences. Such sentences often seem on the verge of careering out of control. Subordinate clauses jostle each other for attention. Problems of agreement crop up. And the darn verb—well, often it seems to disappear.

I frequently beg writers to avoid these problems by using short sentences. The optimum average length for a sentence appears to be about 14 words. But please note the key word average. This means that some sentences should be shorter, and others, of course, should be longer.

And it’s these longer sentences that will often give you the most trouble. Unless….unless… you know one simple but very effective trick:

It matters where you put your verbs

When you’re writing a long sentence, be sure to keep your subject and your verb close together, and close as possible to the beginning of the sentence. (If your grammar is a little dusty, all you need to know is that the subject is the main “actor” in the sentence and the verb is the main action or “doing” word.)

But let me make things even clearer with some examples. The first is from Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet:

“We abandoned the car in a narrow street by the mosque and Nessim entered the shadowy doorway of some great tenement house, half of which consisted of shuttered and barred offices with blurred nameplates.”

Longer sentences can work, if you approach them the right way

At 34 words, Durrell’s sentence is not exactly short, but it is easy to understand because the main subject, “we” and the verb, “abandoned” sit right at the beginning. The sentence is a compound one (two parts joined by the word “and”) and the second subject and verb, “Nessim” and “entered” follow immediately thereafter, further aiding clarity.

Let’s look at another example, also from a classic, Balzac’s Old Goriot:

“Old Goriot had attached a silver-gilt saucer and vessel like a soup tureen to the cross-bar of a table turned upside down before him, and was twisting a thick rope round the richly-chased metal with such terrific force that he was bending it, apparently into the shape of ingots.”

This one is 49 words yet a model of clarity—again because the subject, “Old Goriot” and the main action, “had attached,” sit at the head of the sentence.

But some long sentences should be put out of their misery

For the sake of contrast, compare those sentences with the following 47-word wonder of obfuscation taken from my daily newspaper:

“A North Vancouver man stopped by police more than two years ago on suspicion of drunk driving recently had charges against him tossed out by a judge who ruled police violated his rights by not giving him an adequate chance to call a lawyer of his choice.”

Notice how you stumble reading this sentence. Perhaps you even had to read it twice to discern its meaning. This is because some 14 words separate the subject (“a North Vancouver man”) and the verb phrase (“had changes against him tossed out”).

Think: “short” and “front of the line”

Fortunately, this problem is easy to fix. (In the example from my daily paper, I’d start by splitting the sentence in two.) To avoid the problem in the first place, write mostly short sentences. And when you need to throw in longer ones, be sure to keep your subject and verb close together, and near the beginning.

If you do that, you’ll be able to write sentences the way Lance Armstrong rides a bicycle.

This article first ran on Ragan.com in May 2012.


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