Hey! Lesson four of Unboring Your Writing is all about sentence length.
I’m sure you’ve seen this classic example of how sentence length can improve a paragraph, but here it is anyway, because I think it’s amazing:
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important. —Gary Provost
(Also, note the repetition and rule of three up there: a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony.)
That’s a pretty obvious example, but it also illustrates beautifully how important sentence length is. And while I doubt that you’re going to write something as terrible as the collection of five-word sentences, if you think your writing sounds a bit wooden, check the sentences. I often find that if a bit of my writing sounds confusing, I usually need to cut the sentences into more easily digestible chunks.
A key ingredient in varying sentence length? Conjunctions! And it goes both ways—they can help you to both lengthen and shorten sentences.
If you find a crop of short sentences that you think need to be changed, find two that would go well together and stick them together with a conjunction.
Here’s an example:
Short sentences: Proofreading is so important. It’s a crucial step. You want to make sure you’re doing it well.
Long sentence: Proofreading is so important. It’s a crucial step, and you want to make sure you’re doing it well.
On the other hand, an easy way to find where you can chop sentences if you have a few that are too long is to find conjunctions. Then, you can split sentences by removing the conjunctions and adding appropriate punctuation. (Tip: Look for the commas!)
Here’s an example:
Long sentence: He crossed the room, looking for her, sure that she had to be here somewhere, because otherwise she was with Mary, and that just wasn’t acceptable.
Short sentences: He crossed the room, looking for her. He was sure she had to be here somewhere—otherwise, she was with Mary, and that just wasn’t acceptable.
(Note: If you find a long sentence that is just, well, long, and doesn’t contain any conjunctions or natural breaks, you may need to find a way to rewrite it or cut words out.)
Something to consider when you’re thinking about sentence length is how different lengths make your reader feel.
Shorter sentences, especially when positioned together, quicken the pace of reading and create a staccato feeling. They’re often used in suspenseful scenes.
Longer sentences often create a more flowing, literary feel. You can develop ideas more thoroughly in longer sentences and include more description, which is useful if you’re trying to draw your reader into a scene or idea.
Who would have thought that something as simple as sentence length could make such a difference?
Exercise: Modify the sentence lengths in the following two paragraphs.
Today’s blog post is about polishing your writing. I’m going to talk about proofreading. Proofreading is essential. Writers should proofread.
When I proofread a piece of writing, I look for several important things, including grammar, structure, word choice, and factual accuracy, because getting any of these wrong would be embarrassing, especially when you’re a professional editor who is supposed to know better!
Liked this lesson? You should check out my workbook, Blog in Bloom. I wrote it after analysing twenty blog posts and info-products to find what bloggers and infopreneurs struggled with most in their writing. Based on my analysis, I wrote Blog in Bloom, a 110-page workbook that goes over everything in the Unboring Your Writing course, plus lots more. Find out more here.
PS: Want the Unboring Your Writing workbook? It's a printable and fillable PDF workbook with the same exercises as these lessons, plus answers. You can find it here.