Short sentences are gospel truths when it comes to clear, concise writing.
In fact, no lesson about writing for the web is complete without the statement “use short sentences.”
And who is not going to use short sentences when they were cherished by Papa? Nobody. Because you don’t want Hemingway on your bad side.
Yet, instructions on how to actually write short sentences are in short supply. I aim to fix that today.
In this post, you’ll find six exercises that can help you write short, clear sentences that pack a punch — plus three tips on removing unnecessary words.
Don’t forget to download your free worksheet following the lesson. Have fun!
1. Describe a broad or complex subject in 100 words or fewer
Choose a subject you love. One you know well.
Maybe it’s quantum mechanics or the history of Western civilization.
It could be a current event with lots of twists and turns.
Once you’ve described the subject in 100 words or fewer, shoot for 50 words. Then 10 words.
Find a new topic, and repeat.
2. Describe a topic using only monosyllabic words
You know … monosyllabic … words created from just one syllable.
Like: bone, two, fierce, lie, spade, blow, hill, brain, dark.
Think this will be easy? It won’t.
To describe a table (a word with two syllables) I had to use 12 words (and one polysyllabic word): “Flat surface with four legs made out of wood, metal, or glass.”
Can you describe it with 12 or fewer?
You’ll probably need a thesaurus for this exercise. Then work your way through that list of monosyllabic words I listed above, starting with “bone.”
3. Write a 100-word article that contains only active verbs
Focus on the subject performing the action.
Active verbs are faster and more descriptive than if an object performs an action.
- “Dorothy yelled at the waiter.”
- “The rhino gored the pumpkin.”
- “The twister devastated Joplin.”
- “The waiter was yelled at by Dorothy.”
- “The pumpkin was gored by the rhino.”
- “Joplin was devastated by the twister.”
Those verbs are passive, and they inflate your word count.
There’s a more important reason to prefer active over passive voice: active assigns responsibility.
4. Write a 100-word article using only simple sentences
Revisit exercise number one above, but this time, limit your sentences to no more than four or five words. And don’t forget about single-word sentences.
Short and snappy will be the sound you hear when you read the article aloud.
Here’s what 52 words look like:
Dorothy watched the rhino. It sniffed the pumpkin. She sneezed. The rhino raised its head. Snorted. Dorothy waved. The rhino pawed the earth. She threw a high heel. It hit the rhino. The rhino ate the shoe. She yelled, “Hey!” Stomped her foot. “That was my shoe!” The rhino ate the pumpkin.
5. Describe a topic in a sonnet
This is another variation on exercise number one where you explain a broad or complex subject within the framework of a sonnet.
Here is my attempt at describing grief:
Everyone knows about love, but no one
really understands how it works. Death,
on the other hand, is pretty cut and dry.
And you can’t fight it off any more than
a small boy waiting up for his alcoholic
father can fight off sleep — it just arrives,
crashing through the blossoms, upsetting
a table, chairs. And you don’t need the Royal
Society of Medicine to tell you
what you already know: no one gets out alive.
What you need is someone to explain why,
when someone dies you’re unglued in an
apocalyptic way, cold as a urinal,
stiff like iron stairs and desperate to die.
As you can see, you don’t have to rhyme or get the perfect iambic pentameter for each line; just get your story into 14 lines and aim for about 10 syllables per line.
This will teach you how to write within boundaries, and you’ll learn a little about poetry, which can help define your style.
6. Describe a topic using the PAS formula
PAS stands for Problem-Agitate-Solve, and the formula helps you limit your idea to only two sentences or fewer per element.
It looks like this:
Insecure? Don’t worry; you’re not alone. However, stay that way and you’ll never accomplish anything of significance. Fortunately, there’s a book called Insecure No More, which will teach you how to be confident and courageous in just 30 days. Buy it now.
There was a period in my career when I had to write hundreds of succinct product descriptions.
The same is true when I wrote dozens of text ads for a long-running Google AdWords campaign. Without this formula, I would’ve struggled.
Your job is to look at 10 products or ideas you love and then write about them using PAS.
Now let’s look at a few tips about removing unnecessary words from your sentences.
Cut redundant words
Here are two different versions of similar phrases:
- “Added bonus” and “Bonus”
- “We currently have vacant rooms” and “We have vacant rooms”
- “Get to the point as quickly as possible” and “Get to the point”
All the italicized words waste space. They are useless.
We write this way because we often talk this way. We think we add severity by saying “Get to the point as quickly as possible.”
But when someone says, “Get to the point,” don’t we always snap to attention?
It’s like a crack of the whip.
Modifiers clutter up your copy. The following italicized words are modifiers:
- “That’s fairly good copy.”
- “I totally understand.”
- “Actually, that’s not what I meant.”
You can eliminate every single word I italicized without losing your meaning.
In fact, you can create a stronger sentence by replacing both the modifier and the word it modifies with a more detailed description or a stronger, more accurate word.
Eliminate the word “make”
The next time you write a first draft, review your document and count how many times you use the word “make” before you edit your text. My hunch is it will be a lot.
Make is the lazy writer’s favorite verb. (All first drafts are written by lazy writers.)
- “Make her give me my money.”
- “Who made up that song?”
- “Will you make me an iced tea?”
Replace “make” with active verbs:
- “Break her arm if she doesn’t give me my money.”
- “Who wrote that song?”
- “Will you brew me some iced tea?”
So, here’s the thing: don’t be overwhelmed by all these exercises.
Consider tackling just one exercise a day. Or one a week. But schedule a reminder so you don’t forget.
You can download our editable PDF worksheet (82 KB) to help you get started.
And when you are finished, feel free to share your exercises in our LinkedIn discussion.
I’ll be happy to comment on them.