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Currently, I am writing papers with rather short sentences: About half of them contain around 20 words, about 10% to 20% even less. I am doing this for three reasons:

  • I find short sentences easier to read,
  • prefer to show relationships using other means, such as colons and conjunctions (e.g. thus, because of, but),
  • and thought the scientific community agreed upon short sentences being better.

Now I did some research and came upon contrary statements, for instance:

So: Should I use long or short sentences, or a mixture, in scientific writing? Why?

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2 Answers 2

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I would say that the sentences need to be the appropriate length to what you are saying, which is liable to be, on average, shorter than novel writing. One of the reasons for using long sentences is to convey a mood, to put a lot of ideas together in one, to build and build the picture you are drawing. In scientific writing there is no need for this, so this sort of long-winded sentence should be avoided.

However, it is also important to make your sentences make sense. If you need to put a lot of information together. Then put it in one sentence. Don't chop them just for style.

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What, if chopping is really easy? Simple example: The solution is foo that has to do bar and therefore goes baz. -> The solution is foo that has to do bar. Therefore, it goes baz. Which one is better? Up to which length of the sentences? –  DaveBall Mar 9 '12 at 12:39
    
I would say that the former is better, because it has a logical flow of a sentence - it is not overly long, and there is nothing gained by cutting it shorter - I don't feel there is greater clarity in a chopped version. –  Schroedingers Cat Mar 9 '12 at 13:24
    
Yes, I see it the same way. I'd say chopping makes sense if sentences become longer than roughly 20 words (highly dependent on the sentence, though). –  DaveBall Mar 9 '12 at 14:23

You want to do whatever makes the text easiest to understand. For me, that means a mix of long and short sentences.

Scientific writing is already going to be dense and complex. There are times when you have to write long sentences because you have to string a lot of information together, and separating the ideas will make them less clear. When you can, break up those long sentences with shorter ones. It will make the material more digestible, and give the reader someplace to rest between thoughts, if that makes sense.

You don't have to talk down to your audience, but there's no reason to put them to sleep, either. Paragraph-long sentences become a soporific drone to the reader's inner narrator. Short ones keep folks up.

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@Dave: I would suggest a mix too. The most eloquent scientific papers I have read do not seem to be forcing anything, concise points are delivered concisely, complicated points might be expressed in more structured sentences. You only need to interfere in your natural writing process if you are doing too much of one thing. Forcing everything to be short might make your points seem staccato. –  M.A Mar 6 '12 at 13:01
    
+1 for "making the text easiest to understand". But after doing some research, I am afraid that too many too short sentences might make the text choppy, therefore not easier to understand. –  DaveBall Mar 6 '12 at 13:06
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@M.A: I like your comment (+1). Why don't you write it as an answer? –  DaveBall Mar 6 '12 at 13:07
    
@DaveBall: Great, so you've identified what not to do: Don't use too many choppy sentences. You should use long sentences when appropriate. –  Lauren Ipsum Mar 6 '12 at 13:56
    
@DaveBall: I feel my comment is just a small addition to what Lauren said, glad I could help. –  M.A Mar 7 '12 at 17:11

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