Sentences – Ideal Length

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I don't know about you, but at school I was taught how to construct sentences.

I learned how to use punctuation - commas, semicolons, colons - so that quite long, complex sentences could be created with a structure that still meant that the reader, whoever he or she might be, and whatever their level of education, could follow without too much trouble; this was regarded as part of a basic education in the English language and one which, at University, was very useful when it came to the construction of essays (I studied History) that needed to weigh the pros and cons of an argument within the structure of a single thought process, and which could be rendered in a single sentence to show the way in which the two possible conclusions could be compared.

Compare the two sentences above. Both are correct, but one is easier to follow than the other. (See, that's two more easy ones in a row).

Long sentences may be fine for academic dissertations (I don't think they are, but that's another matter…), but when it comes to story-telling, they are best avoided.

Have you ever reached the end of a sentence and had to go back and re-read it? That's a sure sign that the sentence is either poorly constructed, or too long, or both. If it happens in the middle of a story, what happens is that the flow of the narrative is interrupted. And that is the last thing that we, as writers want. We want to carry our readers forward on a wave of engagement. So let's make it easy for them.

Keep the sentences short.

And break the rules if you want to. I was taught that a sentence has to contain a subject, a verb and an object. But it doesn't. Not always. (There's two for a start). OK, so the purist will say that they aren't sentences. So what? Did you understand them? Then that's what counts. And if they aren't sentences, then hurrah for writing that sometimes doesn't contain sentences. Minimum length? One word.


But it's not just ease of understanding that short sentences provide.

They add pace. They keep things moving.

Compare these:

I must have held out my hand, because he's taken it with a firm, dry handshake in which his long fingers wrap right round the back of my hand making me tingle, while his brown eyes - yes I was right about that - with their long lashes look straight into mine, and all I can focus on is his white-toothed smile and full lips.


I must have held out my hand, because he's taken hold of it. His hand is dry and his handshake is firm. He has long fingers that wrap right round the back of my hand. I'm tingling. He's looking at me. I'm right. His eyes are brown. With long lashes. And he's smiling. His teeth are white. And his lips are full.

They both say the same thing, but the second has more pace and you can feel the emotions running through the character much more fully.

Next time you read a story that you feel really carries you along with it, take a moment to look at the sentence structure. I'm betting you'll find it has lots of short ones.

A good rule of thumb is that whenever you are about to use a comma, ask yourself if it could be a full stop. If the answer is 'yes', then it probably should be - four times out of five.

(Or perhaps that should be : 'If the answer is yes, then it probably should be. Four times out of five'. A dash is really just another sort of comma.)

Of course, there are times when longer, more descriptive sentences are necessary; or maybe you deliberately want to slow the pace down. That's fine, but if your default position is 'short', you will write pacier, easier to read stories.

One last thought: it helps to use plenty of dialogue in a story. People - by and large - don't speak in long sentences. I know that 'dialogue versus description' is the subject of another piece in this series, and I don't want to pre-empt that, but it is worth noting the cross-pollination between these two strands.


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