Lee Zion is an editor of the Manchester (CT) Journal Inquirer and in his final memo to his reporter colleagues before taking up a new job, he gives them this useful bit of advice: Keep your sentences to less than thirty words.
When sentences exceed 30 words, any number of bad things can happen. Subjects and verbs that don’t agree, tense changing in the middle of the sentence, pronouns that don’t have antecedents, and so on. But the biggest problem of all is long sentences have a knack for creating unintended silliness. I found plenty of long sentences in my time here, and three of these led to extreme wackiness. This is what I found while proofing pages at the Journal Inquirer:
May 20: “A local man was arrested early Friday morning on charges that he stole a truck from a local company after police located the vehicle in Bristol with his cellphone inside, according to a police report.”
This sentence is 35 words, and it says the suspect stole the truck AFTER police located the vehicle. Can’t you just see the master thief planning and plotting as he waits for the police to locate the vehicle, so then he can steal it?
May 30: “A Hartford woman with a history of larceny convictions was arrested Thursday on charges that she dragged an officer who was holding on to her vehicle’s door while investigating a shoplifting complaint.”
This time, it’s 32 words, and it says the police officer was holding on to her vehicle’s door WHILE investigating a shoplifting complaint.
It is true that most readers will filter out the silliness and arrive at the correct meaning. But a good writer should have consideration for the readers and will not require from them more mental work than is necessary.
I have found in my own writing the most effective tool for clarity is to break up long sentences into smaller ones. You don’t have to go full Hemingway, but even halfway there helps.