Varying Your Sentence Lengths

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New writers often make the mistake of assuming the best pieces of writing are filled with long, complex, jumbled sentences. Not true. If you want to keep your readers’ attention, try varying your sentence lengths. Otherwise you could bore or even intimidate your readers.

Effective writers understand the importance of varying between shorter and longer sentences. Like a musician, or well-versed public speaker, you must understand how to use words and sounds to add emphasis where needed.

The short sentence adds stress or speed. It gets to the point. It punches the reader in the lip, so to speak. For example:

I love you. I feel things with you. I haven’t felt that before.

With this passage readers know exactly what the writer or character is saying. Every word matters in the short sentence. Take another example:

I love you because I feel things with you, and I haven’t felt that before in my life.

It doesn’t resonate as deeply as the first passage, does it? The chopped up sentences are more effective. The length makes the difference.

The complex, compound sentence has its rightful place as well. It conveys a stream of consciousness or intense emotion in fiction. For example:

That dog has found my last nerve, and do you know what that means? It means that from here on out, you’ll be walking that mutt, and you’ll be fetching its water and nasty canned food and cleaning up the pee stains all over the house while I nap or watch Kath & Kim while sipping on some plonk with my sister. That’s what it means!

The anger and authenticity of this passage is highlighted by the free-flowing length. Readers feel the words pouring from the character’s mouth. (Notice the last sentence, which is considerably shorter than the rest of the passage, is where the emphasis falls.)

After taking into account sentence length and purpose, remember: the key is balance. Too many short sentences make the writer seem childish or immature. The reader gets bored. Overuse of lengthy sentences creates the same results. Essentially, you don’t want monotony in your writing.

If you’re wondering which sentence type you lean toward, there’s a simple formula many English professors teach their students. Find an essay you’ve recently written, and highlight 25 random lines. Count the number of words in each sentence. Add those together. Next, divide the number by 25. This is your average number of words per sentence. If you’re below 14, consider using longer sentences in your writing. Anything over 22 indicates you’re using too many compound or complex sentences. Chop them up. If you’re between 14 and 22, take an overall look at your sentences. Are you presenting a variety of lengths and structures? Read the paper out loud. Does it flow? If you believe something sounds out of place, then it probably is.

Learning the ‘rhythm of writing’ isn’t something you’ll learn overnight, but with practice you’ll catch areas in your writing that lack variety and you’ll learn how to transform your sentences into memorable prose.


Kristy Taylor is a syndicated freelance journalist with articles and short stories strewn across all forms of media. She has written and published numerous books, and is the executive editor of KT Publishing, which encompasses several web sites. For free listings of short story competitions visit http://www.shortstorycompetitions.com

To contact Kristy, email her at mail@kristytaylor.com


This piece may NOT be freely reprinted. Please contact editor @ howtotellagreatstory.com for reprint rights.

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