Build drama, create rhythm by varying sentence length
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:
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:
“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:
“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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
6. Create rhythm.
What does your copy sound like? Create music with your writing. As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alice Steinbach writes:
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.
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