1. Cinders
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    Cinders Member

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    Short vs Long sentences

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Cinders, Jun 18, 2009.

    What's the general consensus regarding sentence complexity and length? My early education has me writing in longer sentences with lots of commas and side comments. Recently, I've learned that a lot of writing is aimed at 10th grade level and short and efficient is the new way.

    I've never had a new or old way, just what came natural, but I'm trying to improve.
     
  2. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Depends on the effect you want. I guess literary fiction of late has favoured overly long sentences with plenty of run-ons, but really there isn't a general rule or anything....if you need long sentences, use them, and vice versa, but definitely mix it up, and experiment with the effects of changing syntax and sentence length and type.
     
  3. dagda24
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    dagda24 Member

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    Sentence length has a lot to do with pacing. Short, punchy sentences can help to speed a scene up, with longer, more detailed sentences tend to slow action down. Really you need to use a mixture of both, but I don't think there are any hard and fast rules here.
     
  4. cybrxkhan
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    cybrxkhan Contributing Member

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    Sentence length can be used to create an atmosphere in the story. As dagda24 said, short ones generally have more of an action feel, and longer ones give a more relaxed atmosphere.

    One little trick I remember is putting an extremely short sentence after a long paragraph. This can be used to put a lot of emphasis on that long sentence, almost as if there is some kind of twist or something like that. Anyhow, it's just one example of how you can manipulate sentence length to your advantage. The point is, sentence length can give you another venue to play around with the reader's mind, but it's important that you balance both out as befits your story, and also stay consistent within reason - a book that has long, winding sentences the first half and then switches to short, tart sentences in the second half better have a good reason for doing so. So I guess as with all other rules of writing, it has to be for the best of the story.

    It can be really effective.
     
  5. seta
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    seta Contributing Member

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    I have found that short sentences are "easier" to write. "Debbie ran out the door quickly. Then she picked up a shotgun from the local supermart."

    I have a tendency to write very long sentences, usually linking several ideas with commas. I've had to learn to keep it down to two ideas, such as this sentence and the previous one.

    I just started using Abiword, which has an awesome grammar engine. It has reminded me of rules which I had long forgotten! This from someone who placed in the 99th percentile for reading/writing/comprehension in their college entrance exams!

    http://www.junketstudies.com/rulesofw/

    Here's a good little guide to sentence structure.
     
  6. JGraham
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    JGraham Senior Member

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    I do not think of this when i write. I simply just write the sentence, if i deliver the part i want and it is really short i am fine with it. But if i need comma's and loads of other things, I do that as well.
     
  7. Dr. Doctor
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    Dr. Doctor Contributing Member

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    I always used to get stuck when I tried to make sentences long out of some silly pre-conceived notion that sentences had to be long to sound 'artistic' or something. These days I vary between short and long sentences depending on what the scene calls for. As previously noted, a shorter sentence is easier to write and gets across action better, whereas longer ones generally describe a scene and give an atmosphere - but even that isn't set in stone.
     
  8. CharlieVer
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    CharlieVer New Member Contributor

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    I agree with what the others have said about pacing.

    The only thing to add: Unless you're going for quick pacing (short sentences) it's good to mix things up. Vary your sentence length and structure.
     
  9. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    A bunch of long sentences in a row can make for dull reading. Varied sentences should be used in every paragraph that is long enough to have varied sentences. IMO.
     
  10. ManhattanMss
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    ManhattanMss Contributing Member

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    I don't know that a "consensus" is possible or will be useful information, in any case. Sentence length has quite a lot to do with style--one's own. That said, there are some things to be aware and wary of, many of which others have already mentioned--pace, atmosphere, market, e.g.

    Here's what I find as I read unpublished manuscripts (moreso than in published fiction). Separate images are combined into sentences in a way that looks like the writer is trying to put too much of the story into one space in cases where sorting out the space for each thought would allow more depth and perspective, not to mention a greater likelihood that the reader will capture each important aspect more clearly and, therefore, find the story more interesting. This often results in an effort that reads like the writer preferred not to work at creating a better story in favor of putting lots of detail into short spaces--it's kind of a lazy alternative to actually writing the story (or seems to me to be, as a reader).

    It also is subtly insulting to a reader (young adult or otherwise) to suggest that the "real" story is too long to capture their interest, so the writer's opting to condense it for readers with short attention spans--either by putting too much into a given sentence (to shorten up the story background, perhaps) or is chopping off lengthy sentences just to appeal to someone who's not likely to understand something a little more complex.

    I'll see if I can give you an example:

    "James pulled the box of Tide from the shelf and opened it, dumping a lot more than necessary into the wash, because he wanted to be sure all the evidence of blood and mud and fresh paint got washed away completely."

    Or, alternatively: "James pulled the box of Tide from the shelf. He opened it. Then, he dumped a lot more than necessary into the wash. He wanted to be sure all the evidence of blood and mud and fresh paint got washed away completely."

    Okay, so here--either way (long, short, or otherwise)--there's a lot of potentially interesting stuff going on all lumped together in an apparent effort to avoid the hard work of building character, creating tension, and contributing imagery to the storyline. Of course, there's lots of ways to deal with this, but here's a try:

    "James hunted frantically through the cupboard for the detergent. It wasn't like he was familiar with washing the clothes, really. That was his mother's job, after all. She'd be home soon, in any case, and James had to be sure no evidence remained from the crime scene. He ripped off his bloody shirt and his mud-covered jeans, noticing a mark on the rump that looked like fresh paint. Now, half-naked and shivering, he dumped a large quantity of Tide into the washing machine. The tub started to fill, and a wave of nausea overcame him. He turned to race to the bathroom and heard his mother's car pull into the driveway."

    I guess I'd say that if you have a long sentence, rather than simply making shorter sentences (or even vice versa--a lot of short sentences and you're not sure they're effective), look to see if any of that signals an opportunity to fill out the storyline and/or build character in a more interesting way.

    Second, if that isn't appropriate or necessary, then look to see how the separate images are connected (with periods, commas, "and," "as," "while," etc.). A very good writer once suggested to me that separating two images with "and" is preferable to doing so with a word like "as" or "while he was ..." or anything that suggests two completely different things happening at once. Reason: Because "and" (or "but"--i.e, a conjunction--like the period or semicolon, e.g.) permits the reader to more easily visualize the significance of both parts, in a more separate way.

    Otherwise, the reader is left with simultaneousness going on, which tends (if it's overused) to murky up the interest value and importance of each image, thought, or idea. And, if these things ARE occurring simultaneously, it's not hard for the reader to understand that (without being told with "... as he was ... " or "... while he did that, she did this ..." and that kind of construction.

    It's an artform, I'm afraid. Not an easy "consensus"-type answer. But part of the key is to write what you need to write, and then to comb through for some of these kinds of details which can be improved upon, RATHER THAN deciding at the outset of a story to write short sentences or long ones (which runs the inevitable likelihood that your writing will seem artificial and dull to your reader).
     
  11. Evelyanin
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    Evelyanin Senior Member

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    As said above, you need a good mix. However, try not to make your long sentences too long, because this can make it really confusing and adding too many comma's and "ands" will actually take away of the meaning you are going for, since, a sentence should easily be said in a single breath and if you make it too long you may find yourself repeating words which makes you sound really ridiculous. A good example of a bad sentence is the one I just wrote. As for short sentences. Make sure you don't split apart comments that belong together. For example. Bob jumped into the air. He grabbed a branch. He hung on to the branch. Then he put his foot on the tree. He climbed up the tree. A slightly better version, (now remember that I am not an experienced writer, so others may even correct my sentences) would be: "Bob jumped into the air and grabbed a branch. He hung on to the branch and put his foot on the tree so he could start climbing it." Now you get the basic idea. You could always add more details so you get something more like: "Bob jumped into the air beside the big oak and grabbed onto a branch. He hung on with all his might as the rabid dogs barked beneath him. Placing his sneaker against the rough bark he gained a solid footing and was able to pull himself up to safety."
    So there, I just added a whole pile of detail to the paragraph. I got rid of some repetitive words, like "branch", and rearranged the sentences so they didn't get too boring. The sentences are fairly different lengths yet communicate the idea stronger. Too short and it just seems childish, too long and the reader will need to reread the sentences a few times.
     
  12. diamonds overun
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    diamonds overun Member

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    I totally agree, and do this my self. But as a rule i stick to what my yr 12 english teacher said - one point to a sentence.
     
  13. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Vary sentence length.

    Leisurely paced sections when the characters have time to look around and catch their breath, when they can take stock of there surroundings, can tolerate longer, more complex sentences, rich with detail.

    Keep it tight for fast paced action. Short sentences pack more punch. Sentence fragments, too. Simple declarative sentences make strong statements.

    The overwhelming instinct for most writers is to ramble on. Fight it! Break up long sentences that try to stuff too much into them. A sentence should convey one meaning, action, or relation. Avoid sentences that try to join several consecutive actions in sequence (and then ... and then ... and next ...).

    So it isn't very often you'll probably need to be told to lengthen your sentences. Far more often you'll be told you should break them up.
     
  14. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    writing exclusively [or even largely] in short or long sentences is not good writing and does not make for good reading... if you check out the writing styles of our very best contemporary writers ['best' does not = 'most popular'], you'll find a good mix of both...

    and the bottom line is not how long a sentence is, but how well it's written...
     
  15. starseed
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    starseed Contributing Member

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    My sentences range from one word to entire paragraphs. It just depends.
     
  16. Cinders
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    Cinders Member

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    I think this is my problem. Read too many early classics that had, I'm tempted to say old English method, a lot of diversionary and side comments in a sentence with commas. State something - comma - refinement of said statement - comma - complete original idea - comma - closing and meaningless comment.


    Thanks everyone for the info so far. I'm learning to cut my sentences down to the point. Some of you especially brought to light my habit of taking the lazy route and packing in details into a sentence so I don't have to write another paragraph about the character.

    The 11 rules of writing helped also, thanks for that! In particular, I think I use passive voice by default, which results in lengthy sentences with lots of commas and side comments to clarify who is doing what to whom.
     
  17. nativesodlier
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    nativesodlier Member

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    I go for a good balance between short and long sentences. long sentences every sentence kinda feels like going for a 10k run, if you know what I mean.

    sometimes instead of using sentences like; "The room feel silent." or, "There was no reply." I simply put, "Silence on a new" line the on another new line I continue.

    Passive voice is great for me. especially in a comedy with lots of action. it kind of gives it a comedic effect through out.
     
  18. captain kate
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    captain kate Active Member

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    rules to avoid breaking in writing...

    I can't find the email where I read it from, but it's really simple: Why make your writing more complex when you can simplify it and be more effective? It's the mistake a lot of us amateurs make (and most of us are that at this point no offense meant). We want to write long, flowery purple prose to show how "smart" we are when something more simple will work.

    My advice: keep the sentences simple, concise and to the point. Don't use excess words, only what you need to use.
     
  19. captain kate
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    captain kate Active Member

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    Exactly! It's the biggest sin that most writers make! Why make the long winded type sentence a certain writer from Maine would use (who isn't that good BTW) when a shorter, more concise sentence is better?
     
  20. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    amen to that!
     
  21. Cinders
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    Cinders Member

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    Got any examples or links? Its been hard to shake the passive voice. I could see it as sardonic, setting up the narrator as more of an observer than being involved.
     
  22. Sinbad
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    Sinbad Banned

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    If someone told me the "rules" of which length of sentences can be used, I'd put up my pen, my tablet, and my urge to write, for I cannot fully express my thoughts if the expression of those thoughts is constrained by man-made obstacles.
     
  23. captain kate
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    captain kate Active Member

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    no one is saying there is a "rule"

    no one has said there is a hard and fast "rule" about sentence length. In my experience, I've been recommending keeping the sentence short, concise and to the point. Why? It's not because of a rule but to keep the reader's interest and the editor, or agent, who is going to look at your writing on the slush pile. When you have only minutes to make it count, things need to be more concise and direct.
     
  24. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    manmade obstacles like language? grammar? syntax?
    what we're suggesting shouldn't be viewed as obstacles but guidelines on how to overcome the obstacles between your thoughts and your writing.
     
  25. ManhattanMss
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    ManhattanMss Contributing Member

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    I understand exactly what you mean here. But, in a sense, none of us can "fully express our thoughts" for all kinds of reasons. We are all (and already) constrained in some way. I think the truth is that's why we write, to begin with (self-expression).

    Think about it. Who do you think came up with the language we use to describe what we write and how we communicate. Mostly writers, really. It's only a way to explain the effect certain mannerisms and conventions have at the reader's end. If that effect isn't what a writer is going for, then I imagine he'll just choose a different tool that might be more or less effective (from the vantagepoint of the reader).

    Take the preference for something concise (like Kate and others mention) that works over something complex that doesn't. But I'm sure they know, too, that there are complexities in life and in language that are sometimes more interesting and work better. How do we know which is beautiful and what rambles, instead? I think by using the language these guides give us in order to think about (and discuss) what we're reading and writing. I think of them as the (often very long) bridge between what I feel compelled to write and what's understood by my reader.
     

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