Keep ’em short and sweet.

Short sentences are easier to understand than long ones.* Academic writers all too often forget this simple axiom. I’m certainly not exempt. (Targeting and fixing others’ long-winded sentences is much easier for me.)

For an assignment in the scholarly communication course I took, I revised a typical paragraph of mine. Here’s the original version, with an average 27.5 words per sentence:

Because the current diagnostic criteria are set up in a pick and choose manner, it is possible for two individuals to meet the definition for and receive the diagnosis of autism while displaying none of the same behaviors. This leads to a large degree of heterogeneity within the autism population. Further complicating matters, autism falls within a spectrum, reflecting that the symptoms can present across a wide range of impairment. For example, diagnoses of Pervasive Developmental Disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) require meeting fewer criteria than for classic autism and diagnoses of Asperger syndrome do not require speech delay, but both of these developmental disorders are still considered to be ASDs.

And my revision, with a svelte 12.2 words per sentence on average:

Current diagnostic criteria for autism are set up in a pick and choose manner. This makes it possible for two individuals to receive the diagnosis despite displaying none of the same behaviors. A large degree of heterogeneity within the autism population is one consequence. Further complicating matters, autism falls within a spectrum. Symptoms can present across a wide range of impairment. For example, diagnoses of Pervasive Developmental Disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) require meeting fewer criteria than for classic autism. Additionally, diagnoses of Asperger syndrome do not require speech delay. Regardless, clinicians consider both of these developmental disorders ASDs.

I could undoubtedly still improve the style, but the second paragraph is much easier to follow.

Please don’t think I’m saying sentences should all be bare and choppy–no one wants to read stilted prose either. Just keep in mind that winding sentences will lose some readers along the way.

*This isn’t the whole story, though. In a future blog post, I’ll tackle the idea of a grammatical core. I’ll show that sentences with short grammatical cores are easier to understand than sentences with long grammatical cores. Stay tuned.

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