To build drama, create rhythm & more
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:
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 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?
“Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences that were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound.”
— Kurt Vonnegut, novelist
2. Clarify complex concepts.
Shorter sentences increase understanding. So the harder your topic is to understand, the shorter your sentences should be.
“The oldest and best advice in the business is: The tougher it is to tell, the slower and simpler you tell it.”
— Bob Levey, “hometown columnist” for the Washington Post
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.
“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.”
— Roy Peter Clark, author of Writing Tools, paraphrasing Tom Wolfe
4. Create drama.
A series of short sentences slows the reader down, building suspense, Clark writes. They serve as cliff-hangers, propelling the reader through the copy.
Long sentences, on the other hand, can create a breathless, slow-motion, stream-of-consciousness scene. Take this beauty, 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.
“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.”
— James Magnuson, novelist
6. Create rhythm.
What does your copy sound like? Create music with your writing.
“I think of writing as being musical. Punctuation is the rhythm and the words are the melody.”
— Alice Steinbach, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist
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