Storytelling made simpler

Plain and simple means easier to read.

Plain and simple means easier to read.

Creative writing is not immune to the benefits of plain language.

Last week I began reading a new bedtime story to my 5-year-old daughter. The story’s about the beautiful bond between a blind horse and a mute boy. It‘s full of everything needed to fill a young girl’s imagination: wild horses, pet coyotes and plenty of adventure.

However reading the story has proven to be no minor task. The author has a wonderful storyline and uses good descriptive language. But the problem for me as the reader (and for my daughter as the listener) is that some of the sentences are just too long.

Each of these long sentences takes the reader on a journey of several ideas, all mixed up into one. And that makes for tiresome reading.

Not only do I sometimes lose my breath (I often run out before a sentence is finished), but I also lose track of where the story is taking me. This means I have to read long sentences twice, just to get a grasp of what’s going on.

Try this 43-word sentence, for example: ‘For a time he stood quietly on the crest with his head held high, his sharply pointed ears flicking forward and back as he snuffed through widened nostrils, testing the tiny air currents that drifted up the sun-warmed slope from the flat below’.

As readers, we can only take in so much information at a time. Effective business writers limit sentences to a maximum length of 15–20 words. This relative brevity enables readers to digest one idea at a time, maximising comprehension of the text.

If the author of my daughter’s book had applied this rule to his novel, he might have made it simpler to read. For instance, an alternative to the sentence above may have been: ‘For a time he stood quietly on the crest, head held high. His sharply pointed ears flicked back and forth. Through widened nostrils, he snuffed tiny air currents as they drifted up the sun-warmed slope from the flat below’.

That’s a 43-word sentence broken down into three short sentences of no longer than 20 words. It’s easier to read and easier to understand. And from a parent’s perspective, there’d be no more gasping for breath when reading aloud.

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