Managing averages and maximums

My books: Legal Writing Nerd and Plain Legal Writing

Legal writing has a bad reputation for long sentences. Why?

Maybe reading cases in law school starts us off poorly. After all, the cases in casebooks weren’t chosen because they were beautifully written. Plus, legal writers often face short deadlines and might end up sacrificing some editing. And legal writers address complex matters—matters requiring explanation, qualification, and clarification.

But we can do better.

First, we can let go of the thought that a concept and everything that qualifies that concept must be in a single sentence:

[Lawyers] think that in order to achieve clear understandings, they must stuff every related idea into a single sentence between an initial capital letter and a final period. They are, of course, wrong.[1]

Second, we can educate ourselves. Here’s what the experts say about average sentence length and maximum sentence length.

Average sentence length

What’s a good average length? The experts say—

  • “below 25 words”—Richard Wydick[2]
  • “about 22 words”—Laurel Currie Oates & Anne Enquist[3]
  • “about 20 words”—Bryan Garner[4]

That’s the average—some shorter, some longer. All the experts quoted above agree that variety in sentence length is important. And when you write about complex subjects, push the length down: “The basic rule is this: The more complicated your information is, the shorter your sentences should be.”[5]

You can program Microsoft Word to tell you your average sentence length. Go to File and select Options and then Proofing. Check the box for “Show Readability Statistics.” Now, after a spell-check, you’ll see a display that includes your average sentence length, along with other information. (Note: a document with legal citations will usually show a shorter-than-actual average sentence length because of all the abbreviations and periods.)

Now ask yourself these questions: Is my average sentence length appropriate for the subject and the audience? Are all the sentences about the same length, or do I have good variation? Do I have too many short sentences, so that my writing is choppy? Based on your answers, edit your sentences.

Maximum sentence length

How many words is too long for one sentence? It’s a tough question, and the experts don’t offer much guidance. Here’s mine.

Are you confident you could write a readable, clear sentence of more than 45 words? I’m not sure I could, so that’s the limit I apply to my own writing. Of course, some gifted writers can create long sentences that are pleasant to read; they usually use lengthy parallel phrases in a series. That technique works well in literature. But for most of us doing legal writing, staying under 45 words will work better. When I write a single sentence that goes over 45 words, I usually break it up.

But it’s not realistic for a busy legal writer to count words while writing. When you’re writing your first draft, let your creative mind produce the text without interference from your internal editor. Let the text—and the ideas—flow.

Then shorten long sentences on the edit. When you encounter a single sentence that bogs you down, tires you out, or annoys you, highlight it and look at the word count. If the word count is over 45, re-work the sentence or break it up.

Those are the three goals for sentence length: readable average length, variation in length, and nothing too long.

My books: Legal Writing Nerd and Plain Legal Writing

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[1] Ronald L. Goldfarb & James C. Raymond, Clear Understandings: A Guide to Legal Writing 47 (1982).

[2] Richard Wydick, Plain English for Lawyers 36 (6th ed. 2019).

[3] Laurel Currie Oates & Anne Enquist, The Legal Writing Handbook 523 (5th ed. 2010).

[4] Bryan A. Garner, Legal Writing in Plain English 47 (2d ed. 2013)

[5] Steven D. Stark, Writing to Win: The Legal Writer 46 (2012).