Do you know what is both the shortest and the longest sentence in the world? Some say it is — “I do.”
But this post is not about marriage counseling; it is about sentence length.
I know that when I’m reading, I don’t like overly long sentences. I was traveling in Germany many years ago and needed a new book to read. The local bookstore had no books in English, but I was desperate. I picked up one of the few German titles that looked familiar to me and decided to try reading it (in German) as a challenge. It was Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy. I had learned German as a child and I looked on this book as a way to improve my command of the German language.
I was able to read and understand the words, but two things made my job extremely difficult. First, many of the sentences were very long. Second, the verb was usually at the end, as it often is in German. These two challenges nearly finished me. Luckily it was a good book and I wanted to know what would happen next. That helped me through it.
I came to the conclusion that I do not like to read long sentences. If I don’t like reading long sentences, why would I write them and inflict them on others?
Readers lose interest if they have to struggle to get the point of the sentence. Who wants to work that hard? It takes the pleasure out of reading.
So! As a writer, I am offering some tips about writing sentences.
- Vary the length of sentences.
- Vary the type of sentences. (Don’t use the same structure for each one – Noun, verb, object. Noun, verb, object. Boring!)
- Use short sentences for emphasis. Occasionally, it might even be just a fragment (not a complete sentence).
- Use short emphatic sentences sparingly or you will lose the effect.
Generally, shorter is better. As a rule of thumb, more than 17 words is too long. Don’t think of that as a hard and fast rule, but rather as a guideline. Many writers string ideas together with connecting words such as but, and, while, since, which, so, and then. Often, these sentences would be much more effective if the connectors were taken out. The long boring sentence can then be reshaped into two good ones.
After you write a paragraph, check it for strong vocabulary and strong verbs. Add modifiers where warranted. If your writing is about a character, think about how he feels and add details to support this. Use rich language without being pretentious or unnatural.
Change it up. Mix it up. Pace yourself. Keep it interesting.