Last week, I tackled shorter paragraphs. Today, I want to take a look at sentences.
Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, sentence length matters. Short, snappy sentences (or even sentence fragments) create a very different effect from long, complex, thoughtful sentences.
In school, you were probably told that every sentence should contain a verb. This is important if you’re writing an essay or academic paper – but if you’re working on blog posts or fiction, your sentences definitely don’t have to all contain a verb.
I’ll come on to this in some of the examples, but first, I want to explain a couple of reasons why short sentences are important: readability and pace.
#1: Short Sentences for Readability (Especially Online)
Like short paragraphs, short sentences are easier to read. Each one expresses a clear, stand-alone thought. Readers can move through them fast – ideal for blog posts, thriller novels, newspapers and so on.
(There’s also an advantage to you, the writer: short sentences are often easier to get right, whereas long sentences can take a lot of editing.)
Here’s an example:
I’m Dave Navarro – but you don’t care about me, you care about you. Your business. Your customers. Your cashflow. Let’s focus on that.
You want to grow. I’m here to help, with one-on-one consulting, done-for-you services, and a whole catalog full of training so you can quickly learn how to get more people to buy what you’re selling, every day.
(Dave Navarro, You’re in the Right Place, on The Launch Coach)
This is from the home page of www.thelaunchcoach.com and it’s acting as a sales page. Dave needs to grab and maintain attention, and the short sentences help do that.
Several sentences here don’t have verbs: Your business. Your customers. Your cashflow. They’re technically fragments – but that doesn’t matter. They’re achieving the effect that Dave is going for.
Let’s take a look at what would happen if Dave had written those sentences to make them more “correct”:
I’m Dave Navarro – but you don’t care about me, you care about you. You care about your business, your customers and your cashflow.
This is still clear, but it doesn’t carry the same sense of energy and forcefulness that I associate with Dave and his writing. It comes across as a little bit slow.
So why doesn’t Dave use the same technique in his second paragraph? After all, he could have written that as:
You want to grow. I’m here to help. One-on-one consulting. Done-for-you services. A whole catalog full of training. All so you can quickly learn how to get more people to buy what you’re selling, every day.
The effect here is a bit choppy. The sentences don’t have a strong pattern like “Your business. Your customers. Your cashflow.”
Plus, the emphasis created by the new structure doesn’t fit with Dave’s message. Dave’s just said that the focus is going to be on the reader – but now his short, emphatic sentences are pulling the focus onto what Dave is selling.
Short sentences are great, but they’ll only work if you don’t overdo them – as we’ll see in the next section.
#2: Short Sentences to Alter the Pace
In fiction, short sentences tend to pick up the pace. They can be used in thrillers and suspense novels to heighten tension.
They’re especially useful in dialogue, helping it to become both realistic and pacy. This applies both in fiction and memoir:
“What if I fail the test again?” she asked on the way home.
There’s no chance you’re going to fail it, I thought. But didn’t say so. After all, it was not my call. She would have to live with the camp’s verdict. We both would.
“Then you’ll be disappointed,” I answered.
“I’ll be so embarrassed.”
“It can be embarrassing to fail.”
“I worked so hard.”
“So you know if you fail it wasn’t because you didn’t try hard enough.”
“So if I fail it’s because I wasn’t good enough?”
I thought for a second.
“Yes. Sometimes we do our best and it isn’t enough. We lose. It happens.”
(Elizabeth “Da Momma”, Briar Haven II, Part I – In Which We Are Saved By an Arrogant 18 Year-Old on Motherhood is Not for Wimps … sadly now appears to be unavailable)
If you’re working on fiction, or using dialogue in a blog post, take a look at the length of your sentences. Try cutting them down – most people don’t even speak in full sentences. (“Yes” or “no” or “I dunno” are all common.)
Short sentences can also make the reader stop briefly – especially when they’re combined with short paragraphs. Full stops (“periods” to US readers) create a mental pause for us when we read, especially if you have a sentences with just one or two words:
Perfectionism. It’s a tricky little concept. People work like dogs at a project and smile as they say they just want something to be so stellar, so excellent, so clearly brilliant that it’s…
(James Chartrand, Is Perfectionism Holding You Back? on Men with Pens)
James starts off with a one-word sentence, “Perfectionism.” When reading, we immediately pause, which gives us time to take in the concept.
The “well, perfect” makes us stop in our tracks too, especially as it’s not just a two-word sentence, it’s a two-word paragraph.
James could have written this differently, but it wouldn’t have the same effect:
Perfectionism is a tricky little concept. People work like dogs at a project and smile as they say they just want something to be so stellar, so excellent, so clearly brilliant that it’s, well, perfect.
Some of the power of the writing has been lost, and the “well, perfect” doesn’t have anything like the same impact.
Can You Go Too Far With Short Sentences?
Constant short sentences aren’t going to create a piece of easily-readable, fast-paced writing. They’re going to make your prose sound like a children’s Dick and Jane book. (See Spot. See Spot run. Run, Spot, run.)
Variety is important: sometimes, you’ll want to throw in short sentences to change the pace, but other times, you’ll want longer, gentler sentences.
Some writing styles suit longer sentences, too. If you read a few posts by Darren Rowse on ProBlogger, you’ll see that his sentences tend to be longish. This fits well with his gentle, measured way of writing.
Over to You
So … it’s your turn to play with sentences.
Take a piece of your own writing and copy it into a new document. Try changing around the sentence lengths. What happens if you merge three short sentences into one long one? How about breaking up one long sentences into several short ones?
If you’d like to take this further, consider how sentences work as part of your own voice and style. Do you want a hard-hitting, energetic style or an easy-going, moderate one? What feels natural for you?
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