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Small words and short sentences

There’s something beautiful in communicating an idea in 10 words.

But using small words and short sentences is easier said than done.

Jeremy Waite’s Ten Words is packed full of examples of 10 word statements, manifestos and philosophies. Once you start to notice them in everyday use, you’ll find well crafted 10 word statements everywhere. Like this one from Oxfam:

To create lasting solutions to poverty, hunger and social injustice.

Oxfam’s mission statement in just 10 words

There’s a good reason to use small words and short sentences.

The UK’s digital government department conducted research that found sentences longer than 25 words aren’t accessible. Sentences of around 10 words are considered easy to read. Those with 21 words are fairly difficult and 29 words or longer is considered very difficult.

When the average sentence is 14 words, readers understand more than 90% of what they are reading. At 43 words long, readers understand less than 10%.

Over the last 50 years, our attention span for media soundbites has dropped from over 30 seconds to below 10 seconds. So Aristotle was ahead of his time in more than one way with his 10 words of wisdom:

To avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing and be nothing.

10 words of wisdom from Aristotle

If it is true our attention spans have decreased, it is no wonder that some great companies have distilled their purpose to just 10 words:

Provide transportation as reliable as running water. Everywhere. For everyone.

Uber’s mission statement in just 10 words

Provide compelling solutions that customers can only get from Apple.

10 words from Steve Jobs that describe the purpose of Apple

To write something that truly captivates the reader is not easy. But when you can, it is all the more powerful when it is in a short sentence:

A mouse took a stroll through the deep dark wood…

Any parent will be familiar with these 10 words written by Julia Donaldson

So what’s the key to doing this? Orson Wells had 6 rules of writing that still stand true today. Two in particular jump out:

  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Or as Professor Brian Cox said in 10 words:

On TV, things should be made simpler, not simple.

Professor Brian Cox and another 10 word quote

And if using 10 words seems extravagant to you, try Winston Churchill’s (10 word) quote to cut your sentences down even further:

All great things can be expressed in a single word.

A 10 word quote from Winston Churchill

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Blog post inspired by Jeremy Waite’s Ten Words.

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