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Pleasing Reading:

An 11-Word Average


Today's Snack: Let's make a trail mix with 11 ingredients! Try mixing (1) peanuts, (2) almonds, (3) pecans, (4) walnuts, (5) sunflower seeds, (6) coconut flakes, (7) raisins, (8) dried cranberries, (9) dried cherries, (10) chocolate chips and (11) mini marshmallows. Pack in containers for individual servings, and wash down with 11 sips of water.




A book (not a poem)

that you think is well-written, easy to read, and has good rhythm


Piece of lined writing paper and No. 2 pencil



Good writing has boundaries. And boundaries are good. Without the sides of a river, a river isn't a river. Without the shore of a lake, it doesn't hold shape.


It's the same thing with writing. It needs to be controlled and limited in order to be functional.


And here's a general boundary rule:


An average sentence length of 11 words is the most readable.


That doesn't mean every sentence has to have 11 words. It just means an AVERAGE word count, per sentence, of 11 words, is best.


Go back and count the words in that underlined, boldfaced sentence. How many words in it? Eleven! So there you go.


Why 11? It's probably because the average sentence spoken aloud is around 11 words, according to research on people's speech patterns. Written communication is best when it mimics speech communication.


To check that out for yourself, listen to people having a conversation. Do they speak in long, drawn-out, complex sentences, with 30 or 40 words? Heck, no! They speak in short bursts, for the most part. So . . . write that way.


But then you run the risk of choppy text. When people read what you write, they won't feel any "flow."


If you write sentence after sentence that is simple and has just one clause (subject - verb - object . . . as in . . . The dog - ran after - the ball. The ball bounced down the stairs. The girl ran after the ball. . . ) it's going to be TOO rhythmic and TOO similar. Booooooorrrrrrrring!


You need to have a few short sentences, and then a long one, followed by maybe another short one, and then a medium one, then maybe a question and answer, then a long one . . . just as a painting has different brush strokes, a piece of writing should have different sentence lengths to give people the full "picture."


Variety in both sentence length and sentence structure will help you make your writing more readable and enjoyable.


Good writers mix it up. They have all different sentence formats and sentence lengths, big words and small, all mixed together like a great, big salad of meaning that's attractive because it has that magic ingredient: variety.


Now let's check this out for ourselves. Do this alone or in a group.


Take one page from a book that you like. In light pencil in the margins, write down the word count of each sentence on that page. Then add them up, divide by the number of sentences you checked, and come up with an average.


How close or far is it from the 11-word average that's said to be good?


Go back now and tally up how many one-syllable, two-syllable, three-syllable, and four-plus syllable words that author used.


You might be surprised by the percentages; good authors tend to use long words sparingly, but when they do use them, they're very effective.


Now, on a fresh piece of paper, write a story, and have the number "11" in it, in some way. Maybe it could be a story about 11 football players on a team . . . or how you're feeling when it's 11 days to your birthday party . . . or all about the 11 reasons you love your dog or cat.


Pay particular attention to varying your sentence length.


When you're finished, go back and count the words in your sentences. Figure out your average. How close are you to 11? Try this again in a month, and see if you've improved.



By Susan Darst Williams Writing 2010


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