Monday, September 13, 2010

The Long and Short Of It

A very effective way to make your writing deadly is to never vary your sentence length. Short sentences are quick and good for describing dramatic events or action. However, write one short sentence after another and your prose sound choppy.

Example: The bird chirped. The sun shone brightly. All else was silent in the meadow. From the distance came the sound of thunder.

Long sentences can be used to slow a description down to create a sense of relaxation or time dragging. But using all long sentences can make your writing hard to read.

Example: The English lesson seemed, to Zach, to be dragging on forever, as Mrs. Kirwood’s voice droned on and on, in its weary, low monotone, about the apparently fascinating poetry of some long-dead writer, who seemed to Zach at least, to be unnaturally interested in scenes of empty countryside and quiet decay.

Unfortunately, writing all medium-length sentences doesn't work, either. Sentences that are all the same length create monotony.

The trick is to hear the rhythm of your sentences and know when to use a longer sentence or a shorter one.

Analyze Your Own Writing
Calculate the average number of words you use per sentence.

1. Take a page that represents your normal writing and mark off twenty sentences.

2. Count the number of words in each sentence and then add those totals to get a grand total.

3. Divide the grand total by 20. Your result will be the average number of words per sentence.

An average sentence length below 14 words per sentence may indicate that you use too many short sentences and you need to learn how to combine ideas. If your average sentence length is well above 22 words a sentence, you may have a prose style that is dense and tangled. If your average word length falls between 14 and 22, you need to look at your sentences to see if there is some variety or if they are all about the same length.

Fixing Short Sentences
To fix short sentences, look for words that can be combined.

Example: Last weekend I saw a chick flick. Three friends went with me. The movie focused on a woman tired of looking for Mr. Right. She decides to have a baby on her own.

Fix: Last weekend three friends and I saw a chick flick in which a woman tired of looking for Mr. Right decides to have a baby on her own.

Short, choppy sentences also make it difficult for a reader to understand the connection between ideas. By using subordinating conjunctions (connective words that make one clause in a sentence dependent on another) a reader is given more direction. Subordinating conjunctions include words such as after, when, although, because, etc.

Example:  I kicked the chair. My foot hurt terribly.

By using different subordinating conjunctions, the sentences take on very different meanings:

After I kicked the chair, my foot hurt terribly. OR  I kicked the chair because my foot hurt terribly.

Fixing Long Wordy Sentences
Longer sentences can be extremely effective; they can also be just plain wordy. To streamline your sentences:

1. Avoid using passive verbs such as is, was, were, are, has, had, etc.

Example: The pedestrian was hit by the man who was driving a red car.  VS The man in the red car hit the pedestrian.

2. Avoid using too many prepositional phrases, such as "the house of my mother" rather than "my mother's house".

3. Prune your sentences. Eliminate repetition and unnecessary words.

4. Cut back on the use of words, such as it, which, whose, that, those, thing, these, they.

Effective sentence style doesn’t just happen. It takes work. Go give it a try.


  1. Good tips! As a reader (more than a writer these days) I can't stand long sentences. I end up just skipping them if they go on too long. :/