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As writers, we are advised to vary sentence length in our work or run the risk of either boring the reader to death or coming off as an amateur. Readers of creative writing are heavily influenced by the flow of the writing and can easily be turned off by work that consists of nothing but three-word sentences or page-long paragraphs of long, loopy sentences. Punctuation matters!
Today’s reader tends to favor short sentence lengths—clear and direct writing rather than flowery, convoluted prose. It’s a busy world full of information, and simple, easy-to-read sentences with powerful verbs are appealing. Sentence length can have an enormous effect on your readers. Martin Cutts, in Oxford Guide to Plain English, puts it well:
“More people fear snakes than full stops, so they recoil when a long sentence comes hissing across the page.”
But there’s a time and place for both short, powerful sentences and for more complicated and complex sentences. A good piece of writing involves a harmonious arrangement of these elements to create a smooth, natural flow.
Sentence Length: How To Use Short Sentences Effectively
A good writer can achieve straightforward prose without resorting to primer-style writing (See Dick run. See Jane run. See Dick and Jane run!). Too many short, choppy sentences creates a jarring effect for the reader, especially when each sentence has the same construction: I woke early. It was cold. I looked out the window. There was snow.
An example of effectively using short, powerful sentences to create an impact can be found in The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan:
That night I sat on Tyan-yu’s bed and waited for him to touch me. But he didn’t. I was relieved.
The paragraph gets the point across powerfully and concisely and without filler.
Another example can be found in the stylistic elements of To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The novel is written in first person, and at the beginning of the novel, the narrator is a six-year-old girl. Lee uses short and simple sentences that gradually become more sophisticated and mature, reflecting the girl’s own growing maturity throughout the book.
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Sentence Length: How To Use Long Sentences Effectively
Readers tend to associate long, convoluted sentence structure with “old-fashioned” writers—the flowery prose of 19th-century poets and novelists—but complex and lengthy sentences can be very powerful in modern writing. Lengthier sentences are used to investigate an idea more thoroughly, give vivid description, and develop tension.
Ernest Hemingway is a master of tight writing. In The Old Man and the Sea, the very first paragraph tells readers just about everything they need to know in plain, simple language and with a minimum of fuss. But this paragraph, from A Farewell to Arms, shows his skill with more complex construction, giving the reader a sense of the character’s languor:
They left me alone and I lay in bed and read the papers awhile, the news from the front, and the list of dead officers with their decorations and then reached down and brought up the bottle of Cinzano and held it straight up on my stomach, the cool glass against my stomach, and took little drinks making rings on my stomach from holding the bottle there between drinks, and watched it get dark outside over the roofs of the town.
How To Choose The Best Sentence Length
Sentence length can influence the mood of the piece. If you’re trying to show a moment of reflection, a long, leisurely sentence captures that sense of nostalgia. If your character is in mortal danger, shorter sentences can punctuate the sense of urgency.
If you’re concerned that your writing is either too choppy or too flowery, review it with an eye toward sentence length.
- Is it varied?
- Does it fit the mood you’re trying to convey?
- Do you heavily favor short, simple sentences, or does the piece contain too many paragraph-long sentences?
Writer’s Relief is an author’s submission service; our Review Board receives hundreds of submissions that don’t make the cut simply because the writing is either too simplistic or too convoluted for readers to appreciate. Whether you’re interested in becoming a Writer’s Relief client or you’re submitting directly to literary agents and editors, make sure you’ve used sentence length (and construction) effectively!
QUESTION: What do you think of the trend toward short, narrowly focused sentences? Love it or hate it?