The Unending Sentences of Doom

I’ve recently become lost in several Unending Sentences of Doom. I’m sure you know the kind I mean. They go on for ever and ever. It’s a paragraph in its own right. By the time you’ve finished it, you’ve completely forgotten what it was about!

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)


As a reader, editor and GM I hate those sentences. Don’t make me work hard to understand what you’ve written. I’m probably busy and/or distracted. I need all the help I can get understanding what I’m reading.

I recently discovered some (to me) fascinating writing advice on the UK government website (of all places).

Of course, when I say fascinating I might be overstating things somewhat, but in any event the advice is excellent for aspiring writers and designers:

The longer the sentence, the harder it is to understand.

As game designers it’s easy—when crafting our next masterpiece—to focus on exciting combats, unique stat blocks and intricate backgrounds. But, all that effort is pointless if the reader can’t easily understand what you’ve written.

Good writing is the bedrock of good design. Without good writing, it doesn’t matter how “cool” your content.

Sentence Structure & Length

Writing guru Ann Sylie presents these findings on sentence length:

  • When the average sentence length is 8 words, readers understand 100% of the text.
  • When the average sentence length is 14 words, readers understand more than 90% of the text.
  • When the average sentence length is 43 words, comprehension drops to less than 10%.

Remember: long sentences decrease understanding.

She continues:

  • 11-word sentences are easy to understand.
  • 21-word sentences are fairly difficult to understand.
  • 25-word sentences are difficult to understand.
  • 29-word (and longer) sentences are very difficult to understand.

Moto #1: Break longer sentences down into multiple shorter sentences.

Moto #2: Write short sentences using plain English.

This Article’s Statistics

This article comprises 396 words broken down into 40 sentences. The average number of words per sentence is 9.9.

Final Note

I’m not suggesting all your sentences should be short. Rather, I’m suggesting a vital part of your self-editing is a close look at sentence length and readability. Remember: as a writer and designer it is your job to help your readers understand what you have written.

Have you found this article useful? Alternatively, is it balderdash? Let me know, in the comments below.

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

3 thoughts on “The Unending Sentences of Doom”

  1. Very useful! English is not my main language, but at some extent it must be applied to other languages as well.

  2. Actually this just gave me a great idea. And it’s meant to be Very, Very Bad, possibly causing a TPK…

    The Unending Word of Doom, a Cursed Codex.

    A giant tome that radiates strong magic. When any literate player opens it and begins to read (the text appears in whatever the PC’s native language is), they must make a series of Wisdom/Fort saves, depending on edition/game (progressing in DC: the first is an easy 10 but they get harder…) to stop reading the one long magic word that goes on and on through out the book. Legend says that anyone who can read the entire word will game immense magic power.

    First DC 10 check to stop reading.
    Pass: Able to stop reading. Fail: PC becomes Engrossed, stops responding to questions by allies. 1d10 psychic damage.

    Second DC 15 check to stop reading.
    Fail: More engrossed. Friendly PCs will have to grapple (not sure about the difficulty yet) to remove book from hands and take 3d10 electricity damage when doing so. Reader takes 2d10 psychic damage. Nose starts to bleed. But reader can’t release the book. Blood from the nose is eerily absorbed in to the pages. Reader begins read aloud.

    Third DC 20 check to stop reading.
    Fail: Harder to remove book from hands with grapple and more damage on an attempt whether succeeding or failing (5d10 electricity damage). Reader now Saves Fort/Con (DC 15) as well or be paralyzed while reading and takes 4d10 psychic damage. Reader’s volume increases, nearly screaming the long, Unending Word making stealth checks nearly impossible and enemies listen/perception much easier.

    I’m thinking it could get much, much harder and deadly. But on the infinitesimal chance of surviving (10 rounds of checks maybe?), PC gains something HUGE. Not sure yet what.

    It’s funny where inspiration comes from!

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