Take a breath: Four key ways to tighten and shorten your sentences

Following up on Tuesday’s post about good leads, one thing we didn’t discuss was lead length. This is primarily because we were looking into narrative leads, which often go multiple paragraphs before hitting a nutgraf, which sets up the rest of the piece.

A standard news lead should sit between 25 and 35 words and cover the majority of the 5W’s and 1H. It should also capture the readers’ attention and clearly explain what happened as well as why it matters.

Here is a lead that violates those elements in multiple ways:

When convicted bank robber Luis Marty Narvaez walked into the Far East Side Madison branch of Chase Bank on the afternoon of March 1, 24-year-old Charles Daehling was just weeks into his position as an armed, undercover security guard working without a state license and under contract to an unlicensed and now-defunct Nebraska security firm.

The story, which you can find here, attempts to unpack a bizarre incident in which a unlicensed security guard shot a would-be bank robber. The lead is 55 words, doesn’t tell me what the story is going to include and loses me among a wash of proper nouns and random facts.

Subsequent sentences in the story have similar issues. Here are several examples of sentences that go on way too long:

Narvaez’s head and face were covered with a black cap and black mask as he briskly stepped to a window where a teller was already helping a customer, stuck a bag under the window and demanded money but never displayed a weapon, according to a 124-page Madison police report and video surveillance footage of the incident.


Daehling didn’t think giving Narvaez a verbal warning before opening fire “would have been appropriate” once he realized a robbery was taking place, because Narvaez and the female customer were close enough that he worried Narvaez could have taken her hostage, the police report says.


Daehling also told police he thought about trying to provide Narvaez with medical attention after the shooting but “given that he didn’t know whether the suspect was armed, the fact that he had his hands inside his hoodie pockets and the fact that he was the only one in the bank armed and with two customers, he believed that it would be better to make sure that he covered the male suspect with his firearm, until police arrived.”


Mark Warren, Strategos senior vice president and director of training, said his company no longer subcontracts with Bobbi Randall Inc. but that such subcontracting arrangements are common in the private security industry because no one particular security company can be licensed to work in every state.


Chase Bank, which started using off-duty Madison police officers to provide security at the branch shortly after the Narvaez shooting, declined to say whether it has any minimal training requirements for security guards who work at its branches, or to answer any other questions about how Daehling came to work at the branch.

Those five sentences occur before the second subhead of the story. The shortest is 45 words and the longest is 78, or more than twice the length of the most a lead should be. Body copy sentences tend to be slightly shorter than the lead when done well, but at the very least, they shouldn’t make you feel like a sugar-addled toddler is telling you about his day.

To help you prevent run-on sentences like these, consider a few tips:

  • Start with the core: Both books argue the value of building a sentence from the core out, instead of from the front to the back. In other words, you want to identify the noun, the verb and the object of the sentence and build outward from that point in concentric rings of information. If you can’t find the NVO core without a searchlight and a posse, you probably have a pretty weak sentence. The NVO core should tell you what it is the sentence wants to explain to the readers. Find it in each of your sentences and then augment it with additional, valuable information.


  • Read it aloud: If you count words, you can usually hit the mark for a solid sentence that doesn’t wander too much. That said, the word “a” and the word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” each count as a single word, so math is only going to get you so far. A good idea to help you figure out if a sentence is too long (or too heavy, as we discussed in the basic writing sections) is to take a normal, human breath and read it out loud. If you do this and you start to feel tight in your chest when you finish, you might need to make a few trims. If you run out of air before the  end of the sentence, it’s almost certainly going to be too long.

    SIDE NOTE 1: When I say a “normal, human breath” I mean the kind of breath you take when you assume you can take another one relatively soon, not a “the Titanic is going under and we need to stay alive” breath:

SIDE NOTE 2: It doesn’t behoove you to cheat at this. I had a student in my class one year who was on the university’s swim team and had the lung capacity of a blue whale. She would read these enormous sentences aloud in one breath and then exhale all her extra oxygen to prove a point. OK, Freya, you got me, but that’s not helping.

  • Write once, edit twice: Once you write the sentence, don’t assume it works fine. Go back through with your critical editor’s hat on and dig into this thing. Strip out extra words that don’t add value. Look to see if you cranked up the prepositional-phrase machine and let it run roughshod all over your work. Determine if you are making one, solid point in the sentence or if you’re trying to do three things at once. Find the noun-verb-object core and make sure each piece of the sentence applies to that core. If not, you can always pull it out into a second sentence. Once you do all this, go back and do another fine-tuning edit to clean up any problems that remain or errors you might have introduced.


  • Ask yourself, “Would I read this if I didn’t write this?” for each sentence: As we discussed multiple times, you aren’t writing for yourself. You need to write for your readers, so keep them in mind when you write each sentence. If the sentence doesn’t make sense to them or isn’t valuable to them, you have failed at your job. Go back and make the necessary fixes to help your readers get the most out of your work.

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