Cut to the chase: short sentences for readable text
Updated: Aug 29
Finns’ sentences are too long. That I’ve learnt from years of translating their texts in Finnish and editing what they’ve written in English.
They pack too many ideas into one sentence. One idea per sentence is enough.
Finns keep going after “and”.
They don’t end the sentence before starting a subordinate clause.
They write long lists that could be bullet points.
The result is boring text that is hard to understand.
Today, I’ve analysed a blog post by Finnish consulting firm Miltton. This is an important consultancy. It has over five million euro in turnover and two million in profit. Many big names in politics and journalism end up working there. Miltton has offices outside Finland. Its image in English thus means something to it. However, as today’s examples show, it hasn’t considered how readable this blog post, at least, is.
The blog post is about how important investment in data is. It contains 622 words. The sentences are on average 21 words long. I think that’s the upper limit for the length of a readable sentence. Below, I analyse five sentences which are longer than that average. I show how to make them shorter and therefore more readable. The whole blog post benefits as a result.
Top three offenders
The longest sentence in this blog post was 40 words long. That’s twice the average for the entire text:
We might still carry some trauma from the endless big data projects of a decade ago, where the main issues stemmed from data incompatibility and legacy systems, as well as the belief that a single system would solve all problems.
This is a real beast of a sentence. Something has to be done with it. I set to work and broke it up into three sentences:
We might still carry some trauma from the endless big data projects of a decade ago. Their main issues stemmed from data incompatibility and legacy systems. The belief that a single system would solve all problems hobbled them.
Contrast the two: one sentence of 40 words versus three sentences of 16, 10 and 12 words. Read them both aloud and hear the difference. The second version is easier to read. The division into three sentences means you can process the three ideas in their own right. Your brain has a chance to process what your eyes have read.
The second-longest sentence had 33 words. That’s more than one and a half times the average:
Many of us have become accustomed to clicking ‘allow all cookies’ pop-ups to proceed, while a group of individuals quietly declined marketing cookies, rendering their data inaccessible to analytical systems used by companies.
Again, I had to break this sentence up into three shorter ones. There are three distinct ideas here. Each needs its own sentence:
Many of us have become accustomed to clicking ‘allow all cookies’ pop-ups to proceed. Meanwhile, a group of individuals quietly declined marketing cookies. This rendered their data inaccessible to the analytical systems companies use.
Read both versions aloud. Note how the shorter sentences make it easier to process what you’ve read. I’ve also changed the passive “analytical systems used by companies” to “analytical systems companies use”. However, now that there are three shorter sentences, the passive could remain. I usually change passive voice to active when editing Finns’ English. However, there are exceptions, like here.
The third-longest sentence in this blog post had 28 words. It was thus almost one and a half times the average for the whole text:
Over the past few years, numerous modern technologies have emerged that enable the collection of data from various sources, allowing actionable insights without necessarily requiring a complete overhaul.
This a classic run-on sentence. One idea ends at the word “sources” and another begins. However, the author didn’t end the sentence where her idea did. This is reminiscent of countless bureaucrat-style Finnish sentences I’ve translated over the years. Again, the hedge had to be dramatically trimmed:
In recent years, tech has started to allow us to collect data from various sources. This provides actionable insights without necessarily requiring a complete overhaul.
I want to break down some of the improvements I made. Instead of saying “numerous modern technologies”, you can just call it “tech”. Further, don’t bury your main point in a relative clause (“that enable the collection of data from various sources”). I’ve streamlined the sentence. It used to say tech has emerged that allows us to do something new. Now, I’ve simply said that the tech allows us to do something new. The difference is small but affects understanding.
Bin the laundry lists
One of the commonest reasons for excessively long sentences is lists. Writers list items that should either be separate sentences or bullet lists. Here’s another example from the Miltton blog post:
They can help attract new customers, retain existing ones, and consistently understand and meet your customers’ needs, thereby driving the development of your business accordingly.
At 25 words long, this is a quarter longer than the average sentence in this text. The “they” refers to a combination of behavioural and transactional data. Here is one way to rewrite this long sentence:
When combined, behaviour and transactional data can:
help attract new customers,
retain existing customers,
consistently understand and meet your customers’ needs.
This will drive your business’s development accordingly.
There is another way if a bullet list doesn’t suit your text:
They can help attract new customers, retain existing ones, and consistently understand and meet your customers’ needs. This will drive the development of your business accordingly.
Two sentences of 17 and nine words are better than one of 25.
Trim the fat
My final example is not only long. It also contains wordy phrases:
The challenge then, and often still persists, is how to allocate data responsibilities within the organization in a way that satisfies all stakeholders.
Here is how I shortened it from 23 words to 19:
The challenge then, and often now, is how to allocate data responsibilities in a way that satisfies all stakeholders.
There are a couple of things here. First, “still persists” wasn’t very grammatical. I replaced it with one word, “now”. Then, “within the organization” was crying out to be deleted. The whole blog post is about organizations’ use of data. You don’t need to say “within the organization”. It’s implicitly understood.
Conclusion: one thought, one sentence
Finns write sentences that are too long, both in Finnish and in English. There are several reasons they do this. If you write in English, your sentences may be too long too. Here are some signs that show you where to rewrite long sentences as shorter ones:
a comma followed by “and”
relative pronouns: “which”, “where”, “when”
adverbs of time: “while”, “often”, “seldom”
a comma followed by a gerund, such as the “rendering” in my second example, above.
Try to stick to one thought per sentence. When you have a new thought, start a new sentence. It’s now always possible, but it’s a good rule of thumb.
Most of the text on the Miltton website looks great. This blog post simply struck me. It contains a lot of very long sentences. If Miltton wants its clients to understand it texts, it should work on shorter sentences. People understand them better. And when they understand what your company is saying, they’re far more likely to buy from you.
Or: why not outsource the problem entirely? Get me to make your text more understandable. I’ll make the boring interesting, such as with Reload™, for €1,990 + VAT. Or let me clean up a translation agency’s mess for €2,999 + VAT. The result? English you won’t be ashamed of. And if you’re not happy, I’ll give you your money back.