Danger–Epic Writing Fail Ahead!
Writing ain’t easy–even if you love it. But at least you usually know whether you’re doing something well or not. One thing, though, might be slipping beneath your radar. If you don’t pay attention, it’s guaranteed to make your writing fail. See if you can figure it out before it’s too late. Here’s an example:
He wrote some lovely sentences. Those words sing clever news. I do hope that you read ’em all. They’re stuffed with everything!
Would you continue to read WowPow if I wrote like this? (Rhetorical question!) Did you notice how sing-song-y it sounded? But what exactly is wrong with the writing that makes it fail? Can you figure it out if I break apart the paragraph like this—?
He wrote some lovely sentences.
Those words sing clever news.
I do hope that you read ’em all.
They’re stuffed with everything!
Now the problem becomes evident—the sentences are all the same length. This gives them a regular, bouncy rhythm, not unlike The Cat in the Hat [Happy birthday, Dr. Seuss!] or “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Delightful when you’re a toddler, like my granddaughter, but not so endearing, otherwise. Now, I’ve created this extreme example as an illustration, but you’d be surprised how many writers unwittingly think in measured ideas. They might sail “in and out of weeks, and almost over a year” [Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are], have a minotaur at the center and be full of ten-dollar words, but if those sentences are all the same length—epic rhythm fail. [You make your own joke here.]
Here’s another example in which the sentences are all the same length. The sentences are longer and better written, so it’s harder to see what’s wrong, but if you read it a few times, you’ll hear the rhythm fail:
Tattoos are no longer the realm of servicemen and motorcycle gangs. People of all ages sport tattoos now, from teenagers to grandparents. A twenty-something woman may have a butterfly on her lower back. A fifty-something man might have a football helmet on his shoulder. Rather than being considered low class, tattoos are considered chic.
The Long and Short of It
Be honest, now. Raise your writing hand—do you think about sentence length? Start now. Besides reassuring readers you didn’t learn everything you know in kindergarten, it also allows you to work some writing magic.
Long sentences are the perfect vehicle for imparting complex detail. They can establish a relaxed, peaceful mood; show a character’s indecision; create gravitas; and keep ideas flowing. However, readers might need Theseus’s thread to find their way out of a long sentence that isn’t well-structured. Long sentences also can slow action and energy.
See what you think of this long-sentence paragraph:
Breathing hard, balancing a tin of water on his head, a small boy climbed toward us. He was thin, naked but for filthy denim shorts and a scrap of cloth around his head. His legs resembled sticks covered with skin and screwed into his bare, dusty feet. Death was all over him, waiting for its moment to swoop in and claim this sorry morsel. When he turned, you could see his sunken eyes and cheeks, chipped teeth, and jaundiced coloring. He stopped for breath, coughing, his chest heaving as water slopped over his bony shoulders. Then jerking sideways like a mechanical toy, he smiled a smile I will never forget. Turning, he steadied the tin of water and picked his way on up the mountainside.
Short sentences are often preferred by today’s tweeters and texters. Ideas in bursts are easy to latch onto and let go of; emphasize key points; and add punch. But the reader must do a full stop after each idea and may stop reading completely. Because the ideas don’t flow, she must create that flow—and the connections— herself and may not be able to on her own. Plus, all that starting and stopping can be exhausting! Worst of all, short sentences may sound childish.
See what you think of this short-sentence paragraph:
Shaka slammed the counter. Late again! Just once, Davis? Could you care about me? She punched her phone. Of course, voice mail. “Goddamit, Davis! The gig is in twenty minutes! I’m already late! I need my car!” Ending the call, she paced. It wasn’t just his tardiness. He was with her.
The Fix is In
You can see that each sentence length can have the invulnerability of Achilles—but at other times, its heel shows. The solution is to vary your sentence lengths—some long, some medium, some short. Too many sentences in a row of the same length become boring—duck, duck, duck, duck… Varying the length of your sentences helps to hold your reader’s interest—goose! Except on purpose for effect, don’t stack more than two sentences of the same length.
Here’s an easy way to check your sentence lengths. Write your paragraph and do all your revisions, then leave each sentence on a separate line. Make the font very tiny, 8 or 9 pts., so few or none of the sentences break over onto a second line.
Mark off the width of the written part of the page into three parts. Sentences that reach your first mark will be short; highlight those in fuschia. Those that reach your second mark will be medium; highlight those in aqua. Those that reach your third mark will be long; highlight those in tangerine. You will now be able to see, at a glance, your paragraph’s sentence length distribution. Where you have more than two sentences of the same length in a row, make revisions to adjust them.
Here’s the tattoo paragraph again,
Tattoos are no longer the realm of servicemen and motorcycle gangs.
People of all ages sport tattoos now, from teenagers to grandparents.
A twenty-something woman may have a butterfly on her lower back.
A fifty-something man might have a football helmet on his shoulder.
Rather than being considered low class, tattoos are considered chic.
[All the sentences were medium in length–inset shows highlighting and lines.]
No longer the realm of servicemen and motorcycle gangs, people of all ages, ethnicities, and socioeconomic groups sport tattoos now.
Teens to grands show off their ink.
A butterfly may light on an Asian college coed’s lower back.
A football helmet on his shoulder may help a fifty-something lawyer relive his high school days.
The heart on Granny’s chest may remember her beloved.
Rather than being considered low class and taboo, today tattoos are chic and trending in all the right places
[Now there are one short, two medium and three long sentences.]
- I made the first sentence longer by adding detail: people of all “ethnicities” and “socioeconomic groups” get tattoos. I also changed its structure, making it a complex, rather than a simple, sentence.
- For more sentence-length contrast, I shortened sentence two. This gave the cool effect of using the hip terms “teens,” “grands” and “ink.”
- In sentence three, I added the Asian ethnicity and changed “twenty-something” to the more alliterative “college coed.” I also made the sentence active and metaphorical by landing the butterfly on the coed’s back.
- The fifty-something man became a lawyer, making him upper class, socioeconomically; there is the added poignancy of him reliving his days as an athlete.
- I evoke emotion in the next sentence with Granny’s heart-on-heart tattoo.
- The final sentence adds alliteration, rhyme, the Internet idea of “trending,” and a play on words with “in all the right places.”
- So, by working to vary the sentence lengths, I also made the sentences stronger and more interesting.
How Do They Do It?
Revision tips—when you need to lengthen or shorten a sentence:
- Combine/split two other sentences
- Add/remove a dependent clause
- Add/remove detail
- Add/remove dialogue
- Rearrange order of sentences
- Change sentence structure
- Create/remove added emphasis
- Say the sentence a different way
- Cut clutter
Here’s how I varied the sentence lengths in my other earlier paragraphs. See if you can identify my changes and how the paragraphs were improved.
Breathing hard, balancing a tin of water on his head, a small boy climbed toward us.
He was miserably thin, naked but for filthy denim shorts.
His legs resembled sticks covered with skin and screwed into his feet.
Death was all over him.
You could see his sunken eyes, cheeks and jaundiced coloring.
He stopped for breath, coughing, his chest heaving as water slopped over his bony shoulders.
Then jerking sideways like a mechanical toy, he smiled a smile I will never forget.
Turning, he went on up the mountain.
[There are two short, three medium and four long sentences.]
Shaka raked the curtain and slammed the counter.
Just once, Davis, could you care about me, instead of yourself?
She punched her phone.
Of course, it went right to his voice mail.
The gig is in twenty minutes!
I’m already late!
I need my car!”
Steaming, she flung the phone into her bag.
It wasn’t just his tardiness that pissed her off.
He was with her, she knew it.
Because of the action in this scene, all of the sentences are short, so adjust your marks based on the longest sentence. [Thus, there are four short, three medium and five long sentences.]
To Avoid the Fail
Summing up: Keep your readers engaged by varying your sentence lengths. Period.