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Up From Down Under July 2007 by (c) Les Stephenson

Sense and Sentences – Length.

 

Introduction

 

Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

Act II, Scene II

 

Polonius.  What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet.  Words, words, words.1

 

 

Hamlet was correct, but words alone carry little weight. The odd solitary word may have significance, but the true power of words arises from the company they keep. It’s when they gather with friends and companions that synergy produces the communication marvel of a sentence.

 

Sentences, not words, represent the building blocks of literature. Construct your blocks from carefully chosen words.

 

Sentence Length

 

How long is a sentence? That reminds me of another question: How long is a piece of string? People seem to have asked about that “piece of string” for years. Has anyone bothered to attempt a measurement? Where is that hypothetical “piece of string”? Have you seen it lying or dangling around? How can you measure something you can’t find?

 

With sentences, it’s different, measurements are easy. There are real sentences everywhere. And people have been busy measuring them. They’ve determined “that 15 to 20 words is the average ideal sentence length …”2

 

Therefore, some sentences must be short (fewer than 15 words), some long (greater than 20 words), and some middle-sized. Which do you prefer to read? Short, sharp, succinct sentences? Or long, languid, lethargic, and lacklustre ones?

 

Size does matter. Authorities believe that smaller is better:

 

 “The two main things to be remembered about sentences by those who want to make their meanings plain (are) that they should be short and should have unity of thought.”3

 

“In general, shorter is better. If you can encapsulate your idea into a single captivating sentence, you’re halfway there.”4

 

“Shorter sentences are easier to read and may be clearer and therefore better than longer ones.”5

 

 

 

You can calculate your own average sentence length. Count all the words in your story. Count all the sentences in your story. Divide the second tally into the first. Your result is average sentence length.

 

ASL = W / S (The slash means divide.)

 

ASL  =  Average sentence length

 

W = number of words in the text

 

S = number of sentences in the text

 

If your average sentence length is between 15 and 20 words, you’ll be assisting your reader to understand what you’re writing.

 

However, remember, it’s an average. That means many of your sentences will be shorter, and many longer, than the average. The up side to shorter sentences is the restriction that they can’t be less than one word. However, the down side to longer sentences is there’s no upper limit. Please don’t be tempted to try out for the Guinness World Records book with your sentence length – your readers may never forgive you. Be warned, the “risk of writing poor and unclear sentences rises considerably as the length exceeds 25 words.”6 (Italics mine.)

 

Short sentences:

 

        provide more readable text.

        aid understanding and comprehension.

        raise “suspense and emotional power, what some people call the “Jesus wept” effect.”7 (The reference is to John 11:35.)

        promote urgency and excitement.

        create “some narrowed, relaxed point of departure or a slamming start, a later point of rest, an abrupt turn or climax, or a simple close.”8

        avoid complexity.

 

but, they can also:

 

        make “your prose sound choppy, childish, or like a bad imitation of Hemingway.”9

 

Long sentences:

 

  • tend to become clumsy and convoluted.
  • demand greater concentration.
  • can cause readers to “lose track of the ideas you are presenting.”10
  • probably need to be split into two if over 35 words.

 

but, they:

 

  • may be required for complex topics.
  • are useful to highlight relationships between concepts or ideas.
  • “create rhythm”11 if penned skilfully.

 

Although the average sentence length is relatively short (15-20 words), there will be times when longer sentences are appropriate for a topic or theme. The key to writing success is always to use the minimum number of words to create the maximum effect.

 

Variation in length

 

If all your sentences were the same length, you’d bore your readers. Dr. Kristi Siegel of Mount Mary College observed: “A subtle, but very effective way, [sic] to make your writing deadly and monotonous is by never varying sentence length.”12

 

Consider these three paragraphs from a 1985 book written by Gary Provost, as quoted in an article by Roy Peter Clark, Senior Scholar, The Poynter Institute:

 

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.

 

Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length.

 

And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals – sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”13

 

Roy Peter Clark concluded: “Don’t just write words. Write music.”14

 

Length and Tone

 

‘Tone’ refers to the resonance of a sentence. It’s the mixture of sound and rhythm, which emerges from your sentences, whether read aloud or sub-vocalised. Good writing tone produces ‘music’ for the reader. Poets know this, but music can flow in prose, too:

 

“Good prose has a rhythm, like poetry. Unlike most poetry, it does not have a repeated rhythm. It should have a rhythm of a subtler, less obtrusive kind …

 

“Here is a sentence of poetic prose, but nonetheless prose, by James Joyce:

 

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

James Joyce, Dubliners: ‘The Dead’”15

 

Joyce’s sentence, 31 words, is longer than the general average, but illustrates one great advantage of length: many words placed artfully together do create rhythm - the music of prose.

 

Pleasant tone means enjoyable reading.

 

Summary

 

Variety in sentence length is the inner-strength of prose. Like building blocks, sentences come in various sizes. Choose plenty of short, strong support structures. Select a variety of middle-sized mantles. Add a few long, robust rafters.

 

Your sentences should fit together in seamless harmony. Always build to a plan, and construct your masterpieces with an average sentence length of 15 – 20 words.

 

 

References

 

  1. Shakespeare, William, http://www.bartleby.com/46/2/22.html
  2. Good Sentence Length, http://www.unisanet.unisa.edu.au/unisanet/
  3. Gowers, Sir Ernest: The Complete Plain Words, Third Edition, Penguin Books, London, 1987.
  4. Wein, Len, http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/l/len_wein.html
  5. Good Sentence Length, op. cit.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Clark, Roy Peter: Craft Improvement, www.poynter.org
  8. Tufte, Virginia: Quoted by Roy Peter Clark in The Power of Short Sentences, www.poynter.org
  9. Siegel, Dr. Kristi: Varying Sentence Length http://www.kristisiegel.com/variety.html
  10. Martin, Rodney: YOUNG Writers Guide, Era Publications, South Australia, 2000.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Seigel: op. cit.
  13. Provost, Gary: Quoted by Roy Peter Clark in Craft Improvement, op.cit.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Manser, Martin and Curtis, Stephen: The Penguin Writer’s Manual, Penguin Books, London, 2002.