In “Do The Words?”, I don’t do hacks and tricks. Language is something we grow up with. To use it well in adult life, we often just need to get out of our own way – to try writing as we speak, and then gently polish.
However, there is one thing I know about writing that qualifies as a real hack. A genuine “one weird trick that people in [insert your city] are discovering!” But a trick that actually works. Works as in people enjoy your writing more, so they read it with more care, so your message gets through better.
The trick is simply this: to make your writing more readable, vary the length of your sentences. Don’t keep them all the same length. Mix them up.
Some short. Shiny, all in one. Good for facts or closing statements. Beetle-bodied gems.
Some medium, starting soft then showing strength, like a cat squeezing through a hole in a fence, dragging powerful limbs.
Some, just a few, that take you traveling, unwinding patterns from the head (the subject and verb), through coils of description sliding after, diamonds and stripes following the path, a tail not wagging the snake but making up its bulk.
These different creatures are happier mixed up, not only with their species.
Are all the sentences short? That’s abrupt, and paradoxically slow. All that stopping. And starting. Too much. Jarring. Tiresome.
Or are all the sentences ambling, 50-word beasts? They’d have me snoozing on my feet.
It’s the mix of lengths that makes your writing interesting, the different forms together.
On the power of mixing long and short, the great writing coach Roy Peter Clark, in "How to Write Short", quotes Norman Brown:
Freedom is poetry, taking liberties with words, breaking the rules of normal speech, violating common sense. Freedom is violence.”
Brown is talking about breaking language rules rather than literal violence. Whatever the sense, the pattern of those two sentences works: sixteen words to expound an idea, then three to underline it.
Elsewhere, Clark describes the respective benefits of short and long:
A series of short sentences slows the reader, because each period is a “full stop.” A well-written long sentence speeds the reader toward the period. Long sentences take readers on a journey. Short ones tell the gospel truth.
– Roy Peter Clark, 40 things I learned about the writing craft in 40 years
One more good thing about varying length: it’s like natural speaking, so it’s easier to take in. In “Vernacular Eloquence”, Peter Elbow notes:
Good writers and handbooks know that it’s a virtue to vary the length of sentences – notably short ones up against long ones. This is common in everyday speech.
And speaking can help us write in this natural way:
When people get practiced in speaking onto the page, they are quicker to exploit syntactic flexibility.
By “speaking onto the page”, Elbow means an approach to developing ideas by unplanned freewriting or dictation, not judging words but putting them down as they occur, to be edited later. This approach helps me more and more.
But to vary sentence length means amongst the shorter sentences some long ones, and aren’t those bad? All we know of good plain language says to keep it short. Long sentences go with old books, and bamboozling agencies. And awkward writers who don’t know what they mean so bury their heads in words, thinking you can’t see there’s no verb to make a point, no main action, no connection, the outcome just a gawky artifact.
Long sentences need too much thought, and so they break the rules … don’t they?
Here, our trusty style guides let us down. Their rules are not so plain and simple here; they hedge and waffle.
One guide says “Aim for an average sentence length of around 15 to 20 words,” then straight after, “Vary the length so your text doesn't sound monotonous”. How far can we stretch the average, and how often? What’s the standard deviation? It makes me nervous.
The official Plain English Campaign gives an example, which is more helpful:
Most experts would agree that clear writing should have an average sentence length of 15 to 20 words.
This does not mean making every sentence the same length. Be punchy. Vary your writing by mixing short sentences (like the last one) with longer ones (like this one).
– Plain English Campaign, How to Write in Plain English
After the example, though, there are more guidelines.
Follow the basic principle of sticking to one main idea in a sentence, plus perhaps one other related point. You should soon be able to keep to the average sentence length - used by top journalists and authors - quite easily.
However, at first you may still find yourself writing the odd long sentence, especially when trying to explain a complicated point. But most long sentences can be broken up in some way.
Most long sentences can be broken up – so is it OK that some still can’t be broken up? Those exceptions, are they a beginner’s “at first” mistake still? It’s enough to make you fret about putting any words together, lest top authors and journalists hear of your syntactic faults and you’re sent for remedial writing.
The answer to these worries is to figure out why the rules were written in the first place. What are they trying to achieve? More important than the letter of the rules should be their spirit. And if we can’t detect a spirit in the rules as currently stated, we’ll have to go back to their origins to find it.
E.B. White, of the famous Strunk and White style guide, with its guidance to “omit needless words”, had to clarify to a reader that “needless” had nuance:
It comes down to the meaning of ‘needless.’ Often a word can be removed without destroying the structure of a sentence, but that does not necessarily mean that the word is needless or that the sentence has gained by its removal.
If you were to put a narrow construction on the word ‘needless,’ you would have to remove tens of thousands of words from Shakespeare, who seldom said anything in six words that could be said in twenty. Writing is not an exercise in excision, it’s a journey into sound. How about ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’? One tomorrow would suffice, but it’s the other two that have made the thing immortal.
– from a letter to a reader, reported in Mark Garvey, “Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style”
Rudolf Flesch, of the Flesch-Kincaid readability score, was generally in favor of short sentences – his famous metric encourages it. But he didn’t think that short was always better.
In his “Art of Plain Talk”, he wrote:
Most people seem to think that simplicity and brevity are the same thing, or at least that they must always be together like Siamese twins. That’s a superstition: plain talk can be slow and roundabout, and short, condensed sentences are often tough to read. The truth is that there are lots of different types of brevity: some make it easier and some harder.
Flesch also writes that speech is often easier to understand because it has more words, so gives time for the audience to follow. Speakers use “filler words between the big important ones; they space their ideas. The secret of plain talk is in-between space.”
Now, long after White and Flesch, are we so much more scared of losing readers that we make our writing deadly dull and lose them anyway?
Perhaps the main thing to fear with long sentences is this: it’s easy to mess up making them, especially if you see them as “writing”, not sounds on the page to hear in the mind.
The sheer length raises the risk that something goes technically wrong. At least with a short sentence the verb is sure to be near the beginning, and the thing it talks about (the subject) not far away.
Good long sentences have their main verb near the beginning, then branch to the right without knotting up the text in clauses that depend on each other for their logic. Here’s an example:
Write a plain sentence. Spiders are loners. Then just add a phrase, and keep adding. Spiders are loners, working at night to build their webs, cross-hatched creations best seen on dewy mornings, each silken strand shining with water beads, the whole edifice flimsy enough to be destroyed by a stray human leg, and yet, in its filigree and symmetry, a thing of beauty, and also of utility, for this lone spider will spend its whole life in contact with its self-made silk – tightening its lines, slinging lassoes and awaiting its prey.
– Joe Moran, “First You Write a Sentence”
You could stop the sentence at any of Moran’s commas and it would still make sense and still carry beauty.
Not sure how to write this way? Grammar gods got your tongue? First, just try speaking onto the page – dictating or freely writing without judging, persisting even if the output is nonsense until you’re not self-conscious and you’re just aware of the things to say; you’re naturally talking sense in human rhythms, long and short exchanging turns. Polish later.
- Nice persuasive examples from Henneke Duistermaat, and a great tip at the end for naturally improving our rhythmic writing voice by reading aloud: https://www.enchantingmarketing.com/varying-sentence-length-examples/
- A well-known before-and-after example by Gary Provost: https://www.creativecampus.com.sg/gary-provost-on-writing-vary-sentence-length/