Red traffic lights

Copywriting tip 17: Short sentences

Red traffic lights - trimmed

NB: This includes sections from my longer, more in-depth article Speed bumps, traffic lights and punctuation.

Once you’ve edited your verbal diarrhoea (deleted as many words as possible, and shortened the rest), time to shorten those sentences.

The analogy I use is a set of traffic lights.

You’re on your way to the shops. You get to a red traffic light.

What do you do?

You stop. You think: ‘So, I’ve got to get the dry cleaning first before I hit the supermarket, then …’.

You’re pausing. The delay in your journey a welcome chance to reflect.

That’s the same as the impact of a full stop. A short sentence.

Control the reader. Make them go at your pace. Stop and think.

Two simple options for where to place a full stop.

One: replace a comma with a full stop.

Take something like this:

‘Here’s something I wrote, just to make a point about commas’.

It becomes:

Here’s something I wrote. Just to make a point about commas.

I’ve forced you to stop and reflect.

So, turn commas into full stops.

Second: replace the word ‘and’ with a full stop.

In 1976, William Zinsser wrote a best-selling book called ‘On Writing Well‘.

He mentions me.

Well. Not really. But he does say:

‘One maxim that my students find helpful is: One thought per sentence…’

(See the use of my name?!)

Where there’s an ‘and’, it’s often introducing another thought. That’s not kind to our reader.

So, find any ‘and’s. And replace them with full stops.

For example, if we have this piece of copy:

Full stops are a great way to control the reader and make them stop and think.

Let’s see what happens when we replace the ‘and’ with a full stop:

Full stops are a great way to control the reader. Make them stop and think.

I made you stop and think. Neat, eh?

I could even replace that second ‘and’:

Full stops are a great way to control the reader. Make them stop. Think.

Too staccato? Yep. I’d probably agree on that. You can always change it back to just the one full stop.

Think about your reader’s journey. Where do you want to give them pause for thought? Force them to stop and think?

Now, you can have too many full stops. Just as it’s annoying when every traffic light is red.

It’s. Just. Too. Frustrating. Stop. Start. Traffic.

So, after you’ve added in your full stops, read it out loud. Some of those full stops might need to change back to commas.

Be kind to your reader.

Short, sharp sentences.

Easier to read.

Easier to understand.

Keep ’em short. Or the reader will give you short: of their time and attention.


This tip is based on my 30 Tips in 40 Minutes webinar.

Feel free to download a version of the slides and watch a video of the one-hour webinar.

Image source: Pixabay


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Jon Maxim

Jon is a multi-award winning copywriter. For over 30 years, he’s helped clients – large and small – develop engaging concepts, content and copy. For 25 of those years, he’s been teaching people how to do it themselves. His courses on copywriting, ideation and presentation skills are highly sought-after and highly effective. Jon lives in Sydney, Australia: but is often found on a plane, heading to where he’s most needed.