How To Tighten A Sentence: 3 Easy Ways To Improve Readability
Rambling is a always a negative, whether you’re speaking or writing.
That said, you have more leeway when speaking because there are many ways to hold attention. You can use tone, body language, facial expressions, etc. to keep listeners interested.
But when you write, there are only words. So rambling isn’t just annoying – it’s fatal.
Want an example? Take a deep breath and read this sentence:
The purpose of this article is to explain why a sentence that is grammatically correct, structurally accurate, and filled with important information that’s valuable to readers, may still be incapable of effectively communicating that information or even holding the reader’s attention.
Confused? Bored? Gasping for air?
This sentence is simply not readable. It’s too bloody long. There are 41 words and 11 of them have three or more syllables!
What makes long sentences feel so unreadable?
When we read, our brain and our eyeballs work together. The eyeballs suck up the words and feed them to the brain.
The brain is very polite. It doesn’t rush the eyeballs. Instead, it waits for them to pause. Then, and only then, it processes the meaning of what it has been fed.
Long, complicated sentences take longer to read and longer to make sense of. They exhaust the eyeballs and overwhelm the brain.
And because no one likes to feel exhausted and overwhelmed, our natural response is to stop reading.
When creating your first draft, the goal is to spit out words, so rambling is okay. But during the editing process, you must tighten up your sentences and make them readable.
There are three easy ways to tighten a sentence:
It’s not complicated. Just relax and read the whole thing ALOUD.
Highlight sentences and passages that leave you feeling confused, bored, or gasping for air. Then do one or more of the following:
- Axe unnecessary words
- Break long sentences into shorter ones
- Replace long words and phrases with clearer, more succinct alternatives
Tip: There’s nothing wrong with starting a sentence with a conjunction. And using conjunctions more freely can help break long sentences into shorter ones.
Let’s use the enormous sentence I gave you as an example of how to tighten a sentence:
Here are a few quick ways to tame that monster:
Replace => The purpose of this article is to explain
With => This article explains
Replace => may still be incapable of effectively communicating that information
With => may still fail to make its point
Replace => or even holding the reader’s attention
With => or even hold attention
With just a bit of pruning, we can cut the word count of that sentence in half, and still say the same thing:
This article explains why a properly built sentence that says something worth saying may still fail to make its point or even hold attention.
Not bad. But readers know it’s an article, so let’s axe that bit too. This leaves us with:
A properly built sentence that says something worth saying may still fail to make its point, or even hold attention.
Now we’re getting somewhere! This sentence may not be bursting with personality, but it is clear, concise, and easy to read.
And every sentence doesn’t need to knock it out of the ballpark, so long as they work together to win the game!
Note: This article was adapted from a chapter in the book Making Words Work titled “Tighten Your Sentences”.
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