Image shows copy highlighted in pink showing hard-to-read sentences. Text reads, “Before & After. Making sense of long sentences. New in January 2024 Wordnerdery.”Have you ever started reading something, and had to stop because you lost your way in a long, meandering sentence?

That’s what happened to me while reading an article in the Entertainment section of my local newspaper.

The opening sentence rang in at 49 words. Eighteen of those words separated the subject (Black Pumas’ success) from the object (can be explained). That explanation took another 14 words to appear.

Black Pumas’ out-of-the-box “outlier” success four years ago amidst the fickle, unpredictable and increasingly Taylor Swift-dominated free-for-all that is the 21st-century music business can best be explained with a shrug and the metaphorical statement that the duo simply caught musical lightning in a bottle at exactly the right time.

For fun, I ran it through the Hemingway Editor app, which highlights hard-to-read sentences in the pink hue you see here. It stated the obvious: “This sentence is too long and complex,” advising “Use shorter sentences and simpler words.”

There’s more. A brief eight-word sentence gave a breather – but just to prepare the reader for being pushed off the cliff of a 77-word sentence.

Maybe that’s the way it’s always worked, yes. But the fact remains that Eric Burton and Adrian Quesada really didn’t expect the somewhat off-the-cuff first experiment in collaboration that birthed 2019’s retro-futuristic, psych-soul sleeper hit "Black Pumas" to take off quite to the extent that they’d be watching Harry Styles singing along to “Colors” at the 2020 Grammy Awards mere months later, let alone get an invite another year down the road from then U.S. president elect Joe Biden to perform at his inauguration ceremonies.

Those two killer sentences in the introductory section of the article gave it a post-graduate level of readability, which is to say not readable at all. The entire 1,340-word article did slightly better, with a “poor” ranking of Grade 16.  (“Aim for 9,” Hemingway Editor suggests.)

Blend style with readability

I understand that columnists have a certain style, and I’ve noticed before that this person definitely likes a looooong sentence. (Is this showing style, though, or showing off?) And this was an entertainment piece, not a hard news story.

Still, “basic principles of journalism apply,” says The Canadian Press Stylebook. “The first sentence is supposed to lead the reader into the story.” So, “Take a scalpel to long leads. Aim for fewer than 30 words. Cut unwieldy phrases. Remove secondary information…and place it lower.”

See how I took a scalpel to the article in the January issue of Wordnerdery.

Have you seen a “before” piece of writing that needs an “after”? Please share! I’m always looking for good (bad) examples.

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Related reading
How long should a sentence be? Ann Wylie explains
Check readability with StoryToolz and Hemingway Editor
See more ‘Before & After’ examples