The 17 Word Rule

While I was working outside of the home I spent a lot of time editing. I edited my own emails, my boss’s personal letters, donor letters, newsletters, and curriculum workbooks. I learned the appeal of a perfectly turned phrase, and extra words drive me batty. I understand the need for clarity, and for taking one’s audience into account.

What I do not understand, however, is the “perfect” blog post. There seems to be this formula out there that is a combination of good sense and good writing and needless conformity that props up our culture’s shortening attention span. Word count + sentence length + call to action/bullet points = popularity, apparently. I think it’s baloney, mostly.

What I mean is that I just do not buy into the idea that so-called “readability” is the end-all be-all of a blog post, even if it gets you more readers. I looked up the “best” length of a sentence for blog posts, and came up with the answer of 17 words (thank you Google). That seems like a reasonable number, I thought, so I tried it. I’m no Jonathan Edwards or the Apostle Paul, so I do not write paragraph-length sentences. But it was hard! My sentences average somewhere in the mid-twenties to low thirties, and I guess maybe I’m biased, but I don’t think they’re hard to understand.

Here’s one reason I think the 17-word rule is a little silly. I read Make Way for Ducklings to my nearly-two year old before her nap this afternoon.  I decided to count the words Robert McCloskey’s book, and many of them were over the 17-word sweet spot! Do you hear that? My nearly two-year-old daughter’s favorite book uses longer sentences than the recommended sentence-length for a blog post — which is presumably written for grown-ups. So I think I’m tossing that “rule” out. I don’t want to overwhelm you, but I want to write to grown-ups as grown-ups. This blog is not meant for board books.

Perhaps people have a little harder time reading a 23-word sentence than a 17-word sentence. And maybe a 35 word sentence is just plain mean. But I happen to love language, and I read books with 50 word sentences. Not to mention the fact that the Bible has h-u-g-e sentences! The world of philosophy, theology, and literature is full of long sentences. If a reader cannot make their way through sentences longer than 17 words, they are largely cut off from those worlds. I don’t want that, and I believe that the more we — those who write things — limit our thoughts to these short sentences, the more our readers will lose the ability to read long sentences of far more import.

It is not just about being able to read old writings, though, either. I use long sentences because the phrases and clauses relate to each other to communicate a whole idea. Grammar is like logic and natural law. In some sense, it is the framework for our society. It’s how we communicate with each other — a common ground by which we can express exactly what we mean and be understood. When people do not know grammar well enough to parse long sentences, I think we begin to lose our ability to communicate. Down the road that will hurt us significantly as a society. Reading should elevate the reader. It shouldn’t merely match their skill level, but should stretch the reader and help them to grow so that they can grasp bigger and bigger ideas and understand more of the world around them.

There are many of these sorts of rules for the “perfect” blog post. Many of them are reactions to poor writing — it is easy to be too wordy, to use too many adverbs, to write with redundancy, etc. But rules won’t fix that. I would rather learn to be judicious my use of adverbs, edit out all redundant thoughts, be conscious that long articles will get boring after a certain point, etc. I may not be your “ideal” blogger, but then, maybe you won’t be the typical reader, either.

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