October 17, 2017

The long and the short of it

Build drama, create rhythm by varying sentence length

Short sentences are best.

But make every sentence simple and short, and your copy will read like “See Dick run” primers. So vary the length of your sentences — for interest, for drama, for rhythm. Fluctuating sentence lengths can help you:

The long and the short of sentence length image

Sometimes bigger is better Most sentences should be short. But the occasional longer sentence can help you add rhythm and grace to your message. Photo by Jessica Ruscello

1. Make a point more powerfully.

“People read long sentences quickly,” says Jacqui Banaszynski, associate managing editor at The Seattle Times. “They read short sentences more slowly. Short sentences are power points in your copy.”

Take these powerful passages from a Pulitzer Prize-winning series in the New York Daily News about the plight of Sept. 11 rescue workers. Notice how the lead’s staccato sentences hit you in the chest like machine gun fire:

“A man’s life is at stake. His name is Vito Valenti. On Sept. 11 he was caught in the maelstrom and stayed at Ground Zero as a volunteer to help in the frantic rescue and recovery operation. And today he is dying.

“He is 42 years old.

“He cannot work.

“He has no pension.

“He has no health insurance.

“He has no money for medications.

“His lungs are being destroyed by pulmonary fibrosis.
“His only hope is a double lung transplant, but he cannot afford even the oxygen he needs to make it day by suffocating day.

“Only through the good graces of a generous medical supply company is he being sustained with the fundamental requirement of life: breath.”

The rest of the article moves along at a more leisurely cadence with an average sentence length of 16.5 words. But the ending returns to gunfire pace:

“‘I’m begging for someone to help me,’ Valenti said. ‘I do not want to die.’

“He shouldn’t have to beg.”

What power points are you making in your piece? How can you use short sentences to slow readers down and better make your point?

As novelist Kurt Vonnegut wrote:

“Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences that were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound.”

2. Clarify complex concepts.

Shorter sentences increase understanding. So the harder your topic is to understand, the shorter your sentences should be.

Bob Levey, “hometown columnist” for the Washington Post, writes:

“The oldest and best advice in the business is: The tougher it is to tell, the slower and simpler you tell it.”

3. Increase credibility.

In times of crisis, make your sentences, words and paragraphs shorter and simpler. That will show your organization to be transparent, rather than covering up the facts by obfuscating.

Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar at The Poynter Institute and author of Writing Tools, paraphrases Tom Wolfe:

“If a writer wants the reader to think something is the absolute truth, the writer should render it in the shortest possible sentence. Trust me.”

4. Create drama.

A series of short sentences slows the reader down, building suspense, Clark writes. They serve as cliffhangers, propelling the reader through the copy.

Long sentences, on the other hand, can create a breathless, slow-motion, stream-of-consciousness scene. Not sure how it works? Check out the 250-word sentence in Clark’s “Tracking the Great Long Sentence.”

Take these beauties, from novelist Paul Harding’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Tinkers:

“He married. He moved. He was a Methodist, a Congregationalist, and finally a Unitarian. He drew machines and taught mechanical drawing and had heart attacks and survived, sped down the new highway before it opened with his friends from engineering school, taught math, got a master’s degree in education, counseled guidance in high school, went back north every summer to fly-fish with his poker buddies — doctors, cops, music teachers — bought a broken clock at a tag sale and a reprint of an eighteenth-century manual on how to fix it, retired, went on group tours to Asia, to Europe, to Africa, fixed clocks for thirty years, spoiled his grandkids, got Parkinson’s, got diabetes, got cancer, and was laid out in a hospital bed in the middle of his living room, right where they put the dining room table, fitted with its two extra leaves for holiday dinners.”

Notice how the two short sentences and medium-length sentence launch that 130-word one. The long sentence would be much less effective without the setup.

“He married a woman named Megan Finn who talked without pause from the moment she woke — Well the good lord has given me another day! shall I cook eggs and ham or flapjacks and bacon? I have some blueberries left but those eggs will go bad if I don’t use them and I can put the blueberries in a cobbler for dessert tonight because I know how much you love cobbler and how the sugar crust soothes you to sleep like warm milk does a crabby baby although I don’t know why because I saw somewhere that sugar winds a person up but I’m not going to argue with what works — until she went to sleep …”

Want one more example? Check out the 250-word sentence in Clark’s “Tracking the Great Long Sentence.”

5. Convey information efficiently.

Most sentences shouldn’t turn literary cartwheels. If your sentences shout, “Look, Ma! I’m writing!” they’re probably distracting the reader from the main event — the message.

As novelist James Magnuson writes:

“You don’t have to go for a home run in every sentence. It will exhaust you and the reader. I always tell my students that every paragraph needs an ox-like sentence that does the work. It should be simple and short. Don’t hide or disguise what you need to say for the sake of cleverness. Just tell me what I need to know.”

6. Create rhythm.

What does your copy sound like? Create music with your writing. As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alice Steinbach writes:

“I think of writing as being musical. Punctuation is the rhythm and the words are the melody.”

The short and long of varying sentence length

So make some sentences very short, others very long. One dramatic technique is to write a longer, more complex sentence, then follow it with a one- or two-word sentence or paragraph.

Enough said.

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Sources: Arthur Browne, Beverly Weintraub and Heidi Evans, “Please Help Me Go On Living,” New York Daily News, Aug. 10, 2006. From the Pulitzer Prize-winning series

Roy Peter Clark, “Suspense … and the short sentence,” The Poynter Institute, Dec. 27, 2006

Roy Peter Clark, “Tracking the Great Long Sentence,” The Poynter Institute, Aug. 28, 2007

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