Have you ever tried to read a book that had long sentences throughout? I say “tried” because it takes effort. By the time we get to the end of the sentence, we may be struggling to remember the beginning. To me, a sentence like that is punishment. But authors should not be condemning readers to this kind of sentence.
I opened “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville and chose a page at random. The first sentence on that page had 88 words. As I scanned the pages I saw many more extremely long sentences. “Moby Dick” did not become a classic without merit, but in today’s fast-moving world, do we really want to work that hard to enjoy a novel? I used Melville’s novel only because it was handy. Many authors of his period wrote in that style.
Nowadays, through technology, we are bombarded by huge amounts of information passed on in short flashes—TV ads, newsbytes, texting, twitter. In this environment, how can writers find a middle ground, conveying our thoughts effectively as we hold the reader’s interest?
They say “Variety is the spice of life.” It is also the spice needed for good writing.
First, get rid of the extremely long sentences. Usually, those with 15 to 25 words are considered to be long. Once in a while, we may need more words, but be careful. Do you ramble on as you write? Try rewriting extra-long sentences to be more concise. Do you repeat yourself? Go back and axe unneeded words.
For example, the first sentence is wordy, while the second conveys the same information in fewer words.
- “I would like to know if your book will be written as a non-fiction version of the events, or will it be fictionalized?”
- “Will your book relate the events as non-fiction or fiction?”
Beware of the opposite problem, though. While too many long sentences make for tedious reading, too many short ones can give your work a choppy feeling. Remember to vary the length.
Vary the rhythm of the sentence structure as well. Throw in a question if appropriate. Why not? It may catch the reader’s attention and keep him interested.
If you want a sentence to stand out from the rest, you can set it off as a short paragraph by itself.
Another possibility is to use it to begin or end a paragraph. A general rule of thumb is to begin with your second-most-important sentence. Place the relevant explanation in the middle and save the best one for last.
Now that we have a good mix of sentences, what about the impact of the words in them? Most sentences have one keyword that is the most important component of the thought. We want to emphasize that word to give our writing the punch it needs. For the most part, readers remember the first and the last words best, but especially the last.
Consider these examples:
“Fifteen top music stars played in a concert at the new theater.” The new theater is what stands out most.
“The concert in the new theater hosted fifteen top music stars.” The fifteen top music stars are emphasized more. Choose your emphasis, depending on the idea you are trying to convey.
In a simplified formula, here are some basic guidelines for writing a good paragraph:
- vary your sentence length and structure,
- place your sentences in strategic positions in your paragraph (beginning, middle, or end), and
- arrange the phrasing to place keywords near the end of your sentence.
New and improved paragraphs will be the result, if you follow some of these guidelines.
Or, changing the emphasis, “If you follow some of these guidelines, you will have new and improved paragraphs.”
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I call reading those long-winded books “making my way to the end of a sentence on my hands and knees.”
On the other hand, I once had a free-lance job proofreading a new big-type edition of “Moby-Dick.” I had got through it in school reading the “good parts.” Now I had to read every word. It was a memorable experience, and I appreciate the book in a way I never could have before. But of course … I was paid to do it.
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I would appreciate doing a very wordy book too if I were being paid for the volume of work, but I know that isn’t what you meant (entirely). One thing I noticed, speaking of wordiness, is that in Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast,” he connects many sentences with “and.” It started to get on my nerves after a while and I didn’t see the point in torturing myself any further. So much for great writers. I don’t suppose all his books are like that, but even great writers have their weaknesses. It must have been the way they did it back in their day, as there are so many long-winded writers of that era. I’ll stop here, lest I become one of them. 😉