What’s 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 isn’t realistic, is it? That means for every sentence of ten words, you’ve 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 what’s a more realistic goal? The experts say between 20 and 25 words:
- below 25—Richard Wydick in Plain English for Lawyers
- about 22—Enquist & Oates in Just Writing: Grammar, Punctuation, and Style for the Legal Writer
- about 20—Bryan Garner 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.”
You’ll 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. Tell Word to stop checking for all those grammar items—it gets many of them wrong anyway.
Now when you finish a spell-check, you’ll see a display that includes the average sentence length. Of course, the tool isn’t perfect. If you have citations or headings in your text, Word will think those are sentences—short sentences—and 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, you’re taxing your readers. Do a thorough edit for concision and efficiency. If your average sentence length is in the teens, well done. You’re pleasing your readers. And remember, average sentence length doesn’t mean uniform sentence length. You should vary your sentence length. Write some short sentences and some longer ones.
But how long is too long? We lawyers have a reputation for long sentences. It’s probably not all our fault. After all, the subject matter of most legal writing lends itself to qualifications, modifiers, asides, and lists—so we might be forgiven. Yet I’m sure we can do better. Here’s a suggestion: Decide on a maximum sentence length and promise yourself you’ll cut any sentence that goes above your maximum. For example, mine is 45. I’ve decided that when a single sentence I’ve written exceeds 45 words, it’s 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. 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, it’s not practical to count words while you type. 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 it’s more than 45, it’s an automatic edit.
So that’s the advice. For readable writing that doesn’t tax your readers, vary your sentence length, seek an average in the low twenties, and cut any sentence of 45 words or more.
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