Twenty words, not too many polysyllables

‘Polysyllables’ aside, it’s simple to make our communications easy to read – and retain greater impact – with one or two basic rules.

It’s such a simple rule, and sub-rule, that it’s shocking that more of us don’t stick to it. We moan about how our communications miss their target or go unread, but what are we doing about it? We need to take action, and the simple ‘twenty words’ rule is a step in the right direction.

Each sentence should contain no more than 20 words.

Sounds good doesn’t it? A simple rule like that can help you hone your writing and keep you focussed on the matter at hand. It also makes editing a little easier, as simplifying sentences now has a clear metric to guide you.

But, in business writing, within internal communications and the workplace, we just can’t stick to this traditional ruling. If you do, you risk creating a robotic terse communiqué that might not flow as well as it should. As much as we need to help managers and leaders avoid verbose prose and superfluous hyperbole*, communications need to sound human and authentic. So we need a modern sub-rule to complement the traditional ‘twenty word’ limit.

Each sentence should contain no more than 20 words and must never exceed 30.

This isn’t a suggestion that a communication’s sentences shall be up to thirty words in length. It’s simply recognising that some managers and leaders won’t stick to the twenty word limit, and some phrases need more room to sound fluid and real. I like to write as a speak when communicating informally. My aim is often to develop relationships as well as communicate matters, so my tone is conversational and my sentences might run on.

How many sentences can break the 20 word rule and reach 30? That’s up to you of course; you need to shape the overall communiqué so that it’s reader-centred, accurate, relevant, timely, concise, contextual and rich.


What was that about polysyllables? Readability decreases as we add in long words. Long words are defined as having three or more syllables. The simplified SMOG (Simple Measure of Gobbledygook) suggests that for every ten sentences there should be fewer than five or six long words / polysyllables.

Readability tests

Find a test that works for you, learn what to do to improve your scores, but always keep in mind your audience’s needs. Acronyms, jargon, and puns are OK if your audience is small and well known to you (like a project team). The broader your audience, the clearer your communications must be.

[onehalf] [icon color=”orange” type=”icon-file-text-o”] Readability Score – check the ‘grade’ of your text.

[icon color=”aqua” type=”icon-file-text-o”] HemmingwayApp – helps you draft and edit communications to be clear.

[icon color=”red” type=”icon-file-text-o”] Writer’s Diet – great at spotting too many verbs (and so, helps you reduce passive voice.

[icon color=”yellow” type=”icon-file-text-o”] Textalyser – simple results.

[/onehalf] [onehalf last=”true”] [icon color=”mint” type=”icon-file-text-o”] Expresso-App – also helps draft comms via readability analysis.

[icon color=”blue” type=”icon-file-text-o”] IBM’s Watson Bluemix User Modeling – stupid title, clever analysis of your writing’s personality.

[icon color=”green” type=”icon-file-text-o”] Emotional headline analyser – may or may not be helpful; it does remind you how hard headline writing is (and should be).


See my resources page for more tools.


How did I do? Four sentences with more than 20 words, no sentences breaking 30, and I totally blew the polysyllables limit when I went on about ‘superfluous hyperbole’. But that’s me, and I’m writing for you. As always, your mileage may vary, but trust me on the 20 / 30 words rule.

* Did you see what I did there?

Photo credit: iko

If you’d like to share or tweet this article, the short URL is:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Previous Article

Intuitiveness and making a better intranet

Next Article

Upcoming UK conferences

Related Posts

Would you like a plain sponge, or a rich chocolate cake?

We know that the 'bare bones' of Good Comms must include accurate, relavant, timely and concise details with enough context to help everyone understand the situation - but there's another concept that should play a part, and it's my favourite because I believe it has a real emotional impact on people - richness.

How do I justify the cost of Yammer to my boss?

I love Twitter, so I'm bound to like Yammer, which is like a private Twitter service used by companies. But people are terrified of Social Media and there is a financial cost to Yammer, so...