I’ll get right to the point; too many long sentences in a row make my brain hurt. And I’m not alone. It’s a human thing.
You like your audience, right? You want them to stick with you as you lay out your message, your points, your life’s work? Then it behooves you to make reading easy.
Here’s one good way: Mix in short sentences to give variety and texture. By doing so, you create a more sustainable pace for your audience.
Listen, I’m a big fan of writing as if you were talking, but that assumes that you engage in conversation in a way that includes pauses and breaths.
Imagine that you’re at a cocktail party. You meet a nice enough stranger and begin a conversation.
They are so excited to say what they are saying that they keep talking and they never stop and at first you’re engaged but then you fall into a trance of sorts and oh-my-goodness why can’t you stop yawning and you wonder if someone slipped something into your drink and at some point you’ve stopped listening altogether because you are now distracted and focusing on how in the world they can keep talking for that long without breathing and you wonder if they are ever going to stop and you’re looking for an excuse, an escape and trying to find that friend that came with you to the party and they are nowhere in sight…
Short sentences allow you and your audience to pause and breathe.
Let’s take a look at some fine writing from author Tom Robbins in Jitterbug Perfume. Below is the longest paragraph in the first chapter. Of the fourteen sentences, just about half are 10 words or less.
The secondary function of a bathroom mirror is to measure murmurs in mental mud. Priscilla glanced at her “seismograph” and disliked the reading. She was as pallid as a Q-tip and as ready to unravel. Dropping the soap in the sink, she imposed a smile on her reflection. With a sudsy finger she pushed at the triangular tip of her crisp little corn chip of a nose. She winked each eye. Her eyes were equally enormous, equally violet, but the left eye winked smoothly while the right required effort and a scrunching of flesh. She tugged at her wet autumn-colored hair as if she were stopping a trolley. “You’re still cute as a button,” she told herself. “Of course, I’ve never seen a-cute button, but who am I to argue with the wisdom of the ages?” She puckered her bubble gum mouth until its exaggerated sensuality drew attention away from the blood-blue crescents beneath her eyes. “My bags may be packed, but I haven’t left town. No wonder Ricki finds me irresistible. She’s only human.”
Okay, that’s fine for fiction, you say, but how about non-fiction writing? Yep, works there too. Below is an excerpt from The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Notice the length of the sentences and how they alternate between short, really short and longer.
Resistance is the most toxic force on the planet. It is the root of more unhappiness than poverty, disease, and erectile dysfunction. To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be. If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius. Genius is a Latin word; the Romans used it to denote an inner spirit, holy and inviolable, which watches over us, guiding us to our calling. A writer writes with his genius; an artist paints with hers; everyone who creates operates from this sacramental center. It is our soul’s seat, the vessel that holds our being-in-potential, our star’s beacon and Polaris.
We all have different styles of speaking and writing. I’m not suggesting that you adopt my casual style or that of Robbins or Pressfield or anyone else for that matter. Instead, I invite you to find the places in your writing where the sentences are a little long, where it’s gotten a little dense and see how it reads when you break up that sentence into smaller chunks. Or introduce a short snippet in the middle.
Give it a try and let me know how it goes!
If you’re feeling on the fence about how to do it, send me a paragraph with long sentences and I’ll send back a suggested edit. On me.