(Sentence) Length Matters

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When it comes to news and most internet content, short sentences are preferred. White space is queen. When you read both today’s writers of literary fiction and authors of yore (did I just write yore?), however, you’ll find they’re not afraid to command your attention for longer swaths of time. And they do it well. A great writer mesmerizes us repeatedly, word by word. That’s seldom accomplished with itty bitty sentences, although writers know when we need a breath and throw in a short one just when we need it most. Like this. 

Does that mean you should attempt labyrinthian sentences, forests of words? Not without a reason. Not without a skillful hand and a mean revising eye. Which probably means you’ll end up with more compact sentences than not. That’s okay.

But for those occasions when you have the luxury of creating leisurely sentences, when you’re finished, allow your eye to follow the path of a sentence and retrace it, paying attention to its flow and how it accomplishes (without flab) what it does. If you can write them, patient, sensuous readers will adore you.

We’ve all heard tales of writers who earned by the word, or writers who wrote serials where readers would have felt cheated to have had fewer words. Especially in pre-TV days. That is often given as the reason for longer sentences in older books. There is some truth to that, though not as much as you may think. (I once wrote a news column that paid by the word and yes, I did pad as much as I could get by with. Hey, I was in college and those packages of ramen didn’t pay for themselves.) 

The best writers have an internal metronome. I once had an S.O.B. of a professor who taught me about sentence patterns; that one valuable lesson alone kept me from loathing him at the time, but not by much. (We’ve reconciled since or I wouldn’t mention it.) I won’t cover sentence patterns today, because they’re a whole thing, but sentence rhythm comes in part from them. And sentence rhythm is irrevocably tied to sentence length.

What do I mean by sentence rhythm? Let’s study these lush sentences from Chapter Two of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre

Daylight began to forsake the red-room; it was past four o’clock, and the beclouded afternoon was tending to drear twilight. I heard the rain still beating continuously on the staircase window, and the wind howling in the grove behind the hall; I grew by degrees cold as a stone, and then my courage sank. 

Not only are the sentences eerie and descriptive, but their rhythm beats out the tempo of honest, insightful Jane’s personality. We hear her as she processes her situation locked in the room by paying attention to what’s happening outside.

Note the combination of trance-inducing, background creating languid sentences interspersed with shorter, catch-your-breath moments? Read the paragraph aloud. A good paragraph has an innate musicality. When you’re writing, pay attention to the flow.

How is that flow accomplished? The syllables in the words themselves, of course are part of the magic. Short words speed things up. Multisyllabic words slow the pace due to how long they take to read.

Then there are those longer units of meaning, such as phrases. How does Bronte control those? With punctuation!

She starts us off with a semicolon. Know about semicolons. Use them. Well. She follows that with a comma, and ends the sentence with a period, of course. Did she think “and now I’ll use a semicolon”? Doubtful. But her ear, accustomed to writing sentences, knew when the time had come. (Punctuation is its own beast. We’ll cover that in an in-depth way too, eventually.)

The length of the sentence is affected, finally, obviously, by the amount of words she allows herself. A longer sentence asks us to commit to the thought for more time. A short sentence indicates movement, perhaps a transition to another thought.

Of course, if we’re discussing brevity and sentence length, we must cover Hemmingway, or at least a story (flash fiction?) attributed to him. When you want to paint quick images, when you want to tell the tale as fast as you can, consider writing telegraph style:

For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

Not only do short sentences speed us along, when well placed they give us a break when we most need it. They’re great for speeding plot along; they’re the friend of genre fiction in particular. They’re the enemy of unhurried literary fiction which relies on longer sentences for developing a sense of place or character. For the inherent beauty that potentially resides in longer sentences in a way that doesn’t seem as possible with short, louder sentences.  

While you seldom hear mention of medium length sentences (because who’s measuring, anyway?) what might their function be?

They’re the unremarkable members of the sentence family. Long ones come to our attention because we’re wondering when we can breathe. Short ones because wow, that was fast. (Unless we’re caught up in the story, and then let’s hope we don’t notice. But if we do…)

Medium length sentences are the workaday ones that hook the other two together! They do the same job but act more as a link than as an engine, to mix metaphors hopelessly. (I suppose the classification is based on opinion – who is to say if sentences are short, medium, and long? I don’t think I’ll try to make that determination here, though I am now imagining someone sorting them on a factory line…anyone want to draw a graphic of that and share below?)

Notice sentence length when you read and ask yourself what it accomplishes.  Then give varying sentence lengths a try and share them in the comments. 😊

Want more information on sentence length with detailed instructions and exercises on how to create your own? What a coincidence – we have more to say AND we’re creating a downloadable for our store. I’ll add a link when it’s finished. 

What’s your favorite sentence length to work with when writing? Have you ever paid attention to sentence length? Thoughts on sentence length?

Writing All the Things,


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