At what point is a sentence too long?

Whats a good average sentence length for legal writing?I once asked a group of lawyers at a CLE seminar that question. Thirteen words, one lawyer volunteered. Seven, said another.

At what point is a sentence too long?

Whats a good average sentence length for legal writing?

I once asked a group of lawyers at a CLE seminar that question. Thirteen words, one lawyer volunteered. Seven, said another. Wow. Writing about legal matters with an average of seven words per sentence isnt realistic, is it? That means for every sentence of ten words, youve got to write one of four words to bring the average to seven. That would be tough.

But the instinct is right. Steven Stark, author of Writing to Win, says the more complex the material, the shorter the sentences should be. So whats a more realistic goal? The experts say between 20 and 25 words:

  • below 25Wydick in Plain English for Lawyers
  • about 22Enquist & Oates in Just Writing: Grammar, Punctuation, and Style for the Legal Writer
  • about 20Garner in Legal Writing in Plain English

How do you know your average sentence length?

You can program Microsoft Word to tell you. In Word 2010 and 2013, go to File > Options > Proofing and look for When correcting spelling and grammar in Word. Now check the box for Show readability statistics.

Youll also be required to check the box for Check grammar with spelling. If you dislike running a grammar-check every time you run a spell-check, go into the grammar settings and uncheck as many boxes as you like. Youre telling Word to stop checking for all those grammar itemsit gets most of them wrong anyway. (For more on using grammar checker wisely, see Customize Words Grammar Checker from the October 2012 Austin Lawyer.)

With those settings, when you finish a spell-check youll see a display that includes the average sentence length. Of course, the tool isnt perfect. If you have citations or headings in your text, Word will think those are sentencesshort sentencesand your average sentence length will be artificially low. To work around this problem, select a paragraph or group of paragraphs without headings or citations and then run the spell-check; do it three times in different places. This will give you a sense of your average sentence length.

If your average sentence length is in the 30s, or even the high 20s, youre taxing your readers. Do a thorough edit for concision and efficiency. If your average sentence length is in the teens, well done. Youre pleasing your readers. And remember, average sentence length doesnt mean uniform sentence length. You should vary your sentence length. Write some short sentences and some longer ones.

How long is too long?

We lawyers have a reputation for long sentences. Its probably not all our fault. After all, the subject matter of most legal writing lends itself to qualifications, modifiers, asides, and listsso we might be forgiven. Yet Im sure we can do better. Heres a suggestion: Decide on a maximum sentence length and promise yourself youll cut any sentence that exceeds your maximum. For example, mine is 45. Ive decided that when a single sentence Ive written exceeds 45 words, its an automatic edit.

Of course, some gifted writers can create long sentences that are pleasant to read; they usually use long but perfectly parallel phrases in a series. Or they use lots of semicolons. It can work in literature and, occasionally, in law. But for most of us doing legal writing, long sentences are hard to read and hard to follow. So avoid over-long sentences.

In managing sentence length and avoiding over-long sentences, its not practical to count words while youre typing. Instead, manage sentence length on the edit. As you read your writing, keep an eye out for any sentence that fills three or more lines of text or any sentence that just makes you tired. Use your cursor to select that sentence, and Word will tell you the word count at the bottom left of your screen. For me, if its more than 45, its an automatic edit.

So thats the advice. For readable writing that doesnt tax your readers, vary your sentence length, seek an average in the low 20s, and cut any sentence of 45 words or more.

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