My English professor used to give me a hard time about writing long sentences. He told me that if I wanted to keep people’s attention, my writing had to be more succinct.

By the end of the semester, he told me that I had improved. And maybe I had, because I had learned to keep people’s attention and get to the point. But my sentences hadn’t gotten any shorter; they had just gotten better.

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is famous for its brevity. But in a sense, it’s not really brief at all. Most of its sentences are 21 to 30 words long. The shortest is ten words. The longest is 82. Long after it should have ended, it’s still going on and on: of the people, by the people, yadah yadah….

What I learned back in college, and still believe, is that a sentence needs to be as long as it needs to be. The measure of its quality is not its word count but its ability to keep a reader’s attention. In other words, it’s only too long if it feels too long. One might say the same thing about a movie, a book, or, yeah, a speech.

My daughter once asked me to read a school paper she had written about Lincoln. It began with “Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809.”

I asked her why the date of his birth was so important. “Well, he was our greatest president,” she said. “He, like, saved the union and everything.” I said, “You might want to lead with that.”

I was trying to teach her to resist the natural inclination to start at the beginning, and instead start with the most important information. But she was only 10 years old, and what she actually learned was never to show me her papers again. I’m still waiting after seven years, so she clearly learned that all too well.

When we lead a sentence with the main point, it becomes much easier to identify what is NOT the main point. Get rid of that part and you’ve shortened the sentence. If it’s too valuable to throw away, give it a sentence of its own. And if it’s an interesting extension of the original point, sometimes you just have to keep going. Because brevity may be a valuable attribute, but the ultimate objective is to use your words to communicate, inform, and inspire. Otherwise people will little note, nor long remember.


  • Think structure, not number of words
  • Make one point, keep going only if you can keep readers engaged
  • If there’s anything left over, keep it under your hat