Everyone learns to write in different ways. I don't mean how to physically form letters or even string a few words together, but to really write. It takes practice to get to the point where one can be an effective writer, and most good writers are constantly finding ways to improve.
One thing I've noticed is a recent trend towards a call for shorter sentences, highlighted by an article by the Editor of Bioessays. In this editorial, Dr. Moore contends that the internet age has placed a premium on small, digestible sentences in the neighborhood of 20 words. He contends that since information is easy to find, easily understandable information will be that which is consumed over more dense material. He is, afterall, an editor with a vested interest in having his journal's stuff referenced and the crux of it is really here:
The Internet places diverse genres of written works side-by-side. Ever more researchers use Google et al. to find relevant literature; and if a reader finds one particular paper too taxing to read, an alternative source of the information–in more digestible form–is increasingly frequently just a click away. Ever more, bloggers and other science writers write for audiences that include researchers. And a growing number of scientists–some of them almost professional bloggers themselves–write brief communications for their own community. I believe that scientific articles are, increasingly, in competition with such writings. Whether scientists or not, few of us will disagree that the short-winded sentences of science writers are usually more pleasing to read than the average peer-reviewed scientific article.... Crucial information should be written in short chunks. A few massive sentences can seriously diminish reader understanding, and hence gratification!
Whereas I agree that that clarity is key, I think I disagree that short sentences is the only way to achieve that goal. In fact, I think well-constructed longer sentences covey more information than those same thoughts chopped up. But do I practice that?
We all like data, so I took a few minutes and put a number of bloggers to the test, but for the hell of it, I included a bunch of papers and grants I have written over the last few years. I pulled out text in paragraph form from 10 posts* by 7 bloggers, including myself. I also pulled random pages from 10 of my IRL writing as comparison, and calculated the mean sentence length using Flesh. I averaged the value from the 10 selected pieces for each person and got the following:
I'm not sure what to make of the pattern, even in this small sample size. Bloggers who do science writing for a living, Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer, were towards each end of the spectrum. Those who don't, as far as I know, were all over the map and at both extremes.
One pattern that does emerge from my own writing is that I write shorter sentences on the blog (for a wider audience) than I do in my science writing. This comes as no surprise to me and I'm not sure I see any issue with that. An editor of a journal like Bioessays, that depends on broad readership, might be right in claiming that shorter sentences make for "better" papers for their purposes. However, I don't believe that holds true for all of science writing. Sometimes we are writing for a broad audience, and sometimes we are not.
I would be interested to hear if others find there is a difference in the mean sentence length between blog and IRL.
*I could only find 9 posts from CPP that fit the criteria in about 80 that I searched.