December 18, 2014

Vary your sentence length to make your writing more interesting

I want to show you a remarkable writing technique that connects Jack Black with Alexander the Great. It comes with an example from one of America’s finest writers - Saul Bellow.

But let’s look first at a way to guarantee that your writing is dull, monotonous, and guaranteed to go unread. Here’s the easiest way how:

   Make every sentence the same length.

Good writers know that varying the length and patterns of their sentences makes the writing more musical, easier to read. That’s what I want you to see.  So, by the time you finish this post, you should be able to apply the technique.

Brain-friendly sentence length

Try writing, and then reading, ten sentences of ten words apiece. By the time you get to the end you’ll froth at the mouth, I promise you. Why? Because of the psychology of it. The human ear expects variety in the written word because it hears it in the spoken word.

People naturally vary the rhythm and length of their spoken sentences. Variation indicates the voice of an actual human being. (If speech didn’t have that effect, there’d be no such thing as dramatic dialog.)

Which is why your writing has to sound natural – not exactly like speech but in ways that resemble natural speech. If your writing fails to do that, your reader’s brain will interpret the message as something other than real communication, something that it needs not concern itself with – the equivalent of background noise. Your brain doesn’t deploy its precious energy to figure out the meaning of noise. It has more pressing issues.

If one of the best pieces of writing advice is “Never be boring” (and it is) then remember that a series of sentences of the same length can be worse than just boring. It’s unnatural. Do enough of it and it will grate on the nerves.

You can be dammed sure that, whether they are aware of it or not, your readers want variety in your sentence length.

A natural sentence has music in it

Part of being natural is being musical (rather than mechanical). Variety in speech is, I think, a kind of music. Good writers know this. They build their sentences around rhythm and variety.

Go here for some examples from the always excellent Richard Nordquist.

And in this short (1 min) audio clip you can hear an extraordinary and famous (“This sentence has five words”) passage written by Gary Provost that illustrates like nothing else, the music that comes from variety in sentence length.

 

Saul Bellow’s sentence variety

Meanwhile,  I have another example that I’m very fond of. I’m going to quote for you from the opening of Saul Bellow’s first novel, Dangling Man. It’s an extreme example of variation in sentence length but it’s funny and sometimes extremes can help. I believe you’ll learn from it.

The protagonist in Bellow’s novel, Joseph, is lamenting “the era of hardboiled-dom”, a time when people “no longer find it appropriate to explore their own inner lives”. (This may be truer now than ever.) Here’s how ‘Joseph’ begins:

“Today, the code of the athlete, of the tough boy – an inheritance, I believe, from the English gentleman – that curious mixture of striving, asceticism, and rigor – the origins of which some trace back to Alexander the Great – is stronger than ever. Do you have feelings?”

The first sentence in the passage has forty words. The second sentence has four. As I said, this is extreme, but good. Why is it good?

Well, very obviously it provides variation. It’s inherently musical. But it goes beyond that. It shows us that sentence length can supply other virtues – the equivalent of some special effects in a movie, I think. In the example, we go from 63 syllables to 5 syllables and an effect like stomping on the brakes at 100 miles per hour. It’s a kind of drama. And as we’ll see in a moment, controlled drama leads to interesting outcomes.

 Alex the great

 

 Don’t overdo the contrast

I’m not suggesting that you write with these extremes, and certainly not with a pattern of 40 words followed by 4. Bellow’s example is so extreme that it alerts us to the limits of the technique. Imagine a passage that was made up of that repeated pattern – 40 words followed by 4. Clearly that wouldn’t sound very natural either.

Your writing needs some short, some medium, and some longer sentences. Most sentences should be medium length. Don’t overdo the contrast.

Trends in sentence length

Now I know that the trend in recent years is towards ever shorter sentences, particularly on the web and the mobile platform. This has to do with something incredibly important and very often overlooked called readability. (I’ll revisit readability often here.)

In any event, the trend towards shorter sentences actually began some centuries ago. The Elizabethan’s (though not Shakespeare) averaged 60 words per sentence. A century and a half ago, the average was closer to 30 words per sentence, and now it’s about 20 or less. Malcolm Gladwell averages 16 in this article. On the web, it’s often 12 or less. And as as Jeff Goins points out, sentences in popular fiction are getting shorter. (Goins’ own word count in his post is ten words per sentence.)

Many bloggers write only very short sentences. I think that can work for a post, but you have to decide if it’s you. I wouldn’t recommend it for writing longer documents, and certainly not for a book. Unless you want to sound choppy. And abrupt.

The key is to look at averages, of course, not just individual sentences. So, on average, try to use  some long, some short, and some medium sentences with, say 10-14 words per sentence as an average. (Mine is 12 here.)

*Go here to Count Wordsworth for a fantastic resource that gives you word count and many more stats if you input your text.

Bonus writing technique: Juxtapose the unexpected

Here’s a bonus technique from the Bellow example. The most striking thing that quote creates is the contrast, the juxtaposition of things we wouldn’t expect to see together: The long and windy sentence is juxtaposed with a short and direct one. It goes from free-flowing and airy, to short and staccato. Meanwhile, the broad historical sweep is juxtaposed with a narrow and solipsistic stop, while the 1940s Chicago ‘tough boy’ is linked, absurdly, with Alexander the Great. And so on.

Long and airy, short and specific. Juxtaposition is a technique in itself because  linking the familiar with the unfamiliar is a way to stand out. (Putting the familiar with the familiar is a way to become invisible.) Juxtaposing is when Jack Black meets Gwyneth Paltrow – the average Joe meets the princess. It’s when you bump into Tom Cruise atWalmart, and so on. It’s a technique that we find, not just in writing. It’s when one object in a photo is contrasted with another, for example. In a play when one character is contrasted with another, and so on.

Juxtaposition can add humor because it plays on the unexpected. In our example, it reveals a pretentious but interesting character in Joseph, who’s mind is all over the place, a 1940s Charlie Sheen without the crack. We are somehow intrigued. We want to read on. Sentence length can be a kind of special effect.

 

 

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    1. […] of the audio. Injecting music into your writing is a powerful writing technique – as I have argued  – and I think Fry proves the point. By the time you’ve listened through, you’ve learned a great […]

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