Quality of Good Writing: Sentence Length

Sentence length is important because it can mimic the intensity of a situation. When I’m really tired, and one of my teenagers calls me from the hall, my gut reaction is to yell one word: “what?” as loudly and succinctly as possible. But, if I am telling a story to a sleepy child, then I will speak the sentences slowly and draw the sentence out like treacle at Christmas time. It is the same with sentence length. Short, to the point sentences, fire spurts of thought causing the reader to both read the sentences more quickly, but pause more often. Short sentences make a point:

Ready. Aim. Fire.

Got it? Good.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

Who was the master of short sentences? Ernest Hemingway! “Courage is grace under pressure” and “Never mistake motion for action.” These are two of my favorites.

If short sentences are so great, then why write lengthy ones and worry about commas? We write with a variety of sentence structures because it gets really boring to write with long sentences.

“While the men made bullets and the women lint, while a large saucepan of melted brass and lead, destined to the bullet-mould smoked over a glowing brazier, while the sentinels watched, weapon in hand, on the barricade, while Enjolras, whom it was impossible to divert, kept an eye on the sentinels, Combeferre, Courfeyrac, Jean Prouvaire, Feuilly, Bossuet, Joly, Bahorel, and some others, sought each other out and united as in the most peaceful of days of their conversations in their student life, and, in one corner of this wine-shop which had been converted into a casement, a couple of paces distant from the redoubt which they had built, with their carbines loaded and primed resting against the backs of their chairs, these fine young fellows, so close to a supreme hour, began to recite love verses.” 

This sentence is from Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. It expresses such qualities of writing to make the reader see this scene…what is really just a tedious part of war (the making of the bullets and the building of the fortresses) that can be juxtaposed against the action of war becomes poetic and beautiful.

Both short and long sentences can be considered sub-par writing; writers need to learn to write sentences that are of the appropriate length. Too many short choppy sentences, and your writing will come across as sophomoric. Short choppy sentences hinder the flow of the writing. Long sentences can come across as wordy or grammatically incorrect even if they’re correct. Long sentence can be so problematic, even if punctuated correctly, because they can be so hard to read by readers who want or need a pause, and writers need to be aware of this because wordy sentences can be so difficult to understand.

When revising or beta reading a piece of text, read it thoroughly for sentence length. As a revisionist, you can take out conjunctions or add conjunctions as needed to make the writing flow. Read it aloud and hear how it sounds. Make those adjustments before proofreading to make your writing move easily from one sentence to the next.

The featured image belongs to Melissa Reese Etheridge.


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