Sentence Length

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I’ve done some groaning on this topic recently, so I figured that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to expound a little more. So, how long should sentences be?

Despite the ubiquity of Twitter-friendly writing in contemporary literature, even Pinterest advises against putting too many short sentences in a row. Why? Because they are monotonous and difficult to read.

However, the counter advice of using varying lengths also has the potential of being misused. If you think to yourself, “I have too many long sentences in this paragraph; I’m going to throw in a short one to spice things up!” STOP AND THINK AGAIN. Longer sentences can provide plenty of variety on their own, especially if you are skilled at using less common punctuation like semicolons or dashes. Learn the intricacies of grammar instead.

Unless you are a poetry master (or giving yourself a writing challenge for the fun of it), don’t try to default to any sort of formulas for sentence length (such as, long, long, short, medium). Don’t use short sentences for the sake of having short sentences. The human brain is smart enough to naturally pick up patterns across paragraphs, and using the same one over and over will become monotonous. Unfortunately, that monotony is also the reason why it’s easy to slip into following patterns in the first place — brains are lazy.

Instead, follow this rule of thumb: The more important the idea is, the more concise the sentence should be.

For example:

He was fucked.

Versus:

He was in the unfortunate position — and he had to admit that it was entirely his fault of finding himself in a dire situation.

The former conveys a sense of urgency and finality that the latter doesn’t possess, because the effect is softened by the use of more words. In the second sentence, we naturally expect the character to find a way out, despite his dire situation, because the urgency just isn’t there. However, there’s no arguing with the simplicity of the three words that compose the first sentence. He’s fucked, and that’s that.

Let’s do another example:

His eyes were blue, surrounded by aging skin that was creased with smile lines, which made them seem soft and friendly.

Versus:

His eyes were blue. They were surrounded by aging skin that was creased with smile lines, making them seem soft and friendly.

In the first sentence, the fact that this character’s eyes are blue matter less than the fact that they are soft and friendly, and the color might never be mentioned again. The point of this sentence is to give the reader a general idea of how this character looks.

In the second sentence, the character’s eyes are *blue*, and the reader subconsciously expects this emphasis to be important later on. Maybe they’re blue because he’s secretly an angel, or maybe someone will recognize him by his eyes after he’s been inflicted with amnesia, or something. This sort of emphasis is a subtle and effective form of foreshadowing. Cool, huh?

For the most part, read your writing out loud to hear how it sounds; you can even record yourself then play it back to get a better idea the flow. If you don’t like what you hear, fix it. Most of us read with an internal voice narrating to ourselves, and writers need to be mindful of that fact when they are plying their craft. That’s how you create something enjoyable.

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