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sentence length

How Long Should My Sentences Be? A Writer’s Guide

We all know sentence length matters, but it can be tough to settle on the right length. This article has some advice for you that we’ve learned from our experience as professional writers. Let’s dive in with a few illustrative examples, then some broad principles:

 

Sentence length matters.  

Short, punchy sentences create immediate impact. 

Longer sentences allow writers to express themselves by infusing style and grace into the prose, creating a smoother, more literary reading experience. 

Short ones get to the point.  See?

If you need to, read those sentences over in your head. You’ll likely notice how the different lengths and phrasing changed how you feel. As writers, sentence length is an underrated way for us to impact our readers. But what are the principles you should follow? Here are some we like:

 

How can I write better sentences?

Most new writers use too many words in sentences that are too vague. Thus, the best general advice I can give to new writers is simple; use fewer words and more facts. To be clear, that doesn’t mean you should never have long sentences, it just means you should focus on having high impact ones. In most cases, it’s easier for shorter sentences to be high impact. 

It’s also harder for short sentences to be confusing. Long sentences, by their nature, have a lot going on. They literally have a lot of words. That’s why they’re long sentences! And that’s great, long sentences can be awesome. But if you just keep stringing words together, particularly if you’re still getting a hang of writing, it can be easy for your writing to get confusing. 

Vary your sentence length

You can make every sentence short. It works. It’s grammatically correct. But it’s jarring. It kind of hurts to read. 

I hated reading what I just wrote. It feels like a jackhammer pounding hard cement. That was clear, but not balanced. A good writer will vary sentence length. If you’re having trouble with this, you can try writing more like you speak.

When we speak it’s natural for our sentences to vary in length. The same is generally true in good writing. Varying sentence length and word usage is a smart way to keep things interesting and avoid monotony. 

 

Don’t be afraid to learn from others

If you want to write for National Geographic but you’re worried about your sentence quality, there’s an easy way to improve. Just read National Geographic. They have a general style and sentence structure. Once you’ve read enough, their style will seep into you. If you’re having trouble, you can just write a sentence, then go read a published article in whatever publication you want to write for. Compare the sentences, and see if there’s anything you can do to improve. 

If you’re writing a pitch, try to make your pitch sound like it was written by someone who already writes for the publication. 

Buzzfeed and the New Yorker will have different writing styles. That’s okay! But don’t expect a piece written for social media to make it into the Paris Review. You might have success pitching a Buzzfeed-style piece to the New Yorker, but you probably won’t. 

Two writers for the New York Times and National Geographic created a course to make you a better writer. 

If it’s academic, go for more information and references

Academic work is generally unlike other forms of modern writing. They have their own citation style,  academic writing uses lots of qualifiers, is often written in passive voice, and can have these huge sentences. Whether this is good writing or not is a matter of debate. However, it is certainly true that sometimes your writing needs to conform to the publication it appears in. Long story short, whether it’s academic or not, be sure you understand the style requirements of who you’re writing for. 

 

Understand rules so you can  break them

Hey! Thanks for making it this far. As a reminder, this is just general advice. Rules are meant to be broken, certainly when it comes to art and literature. I usually try to keep my sentences shorter, but not all writers should do this. 

Case in point: I read Last Rites, a short story by Anuk Arudpragasam in the Paris Review. The whole story has long, flowing sentences. They were almost too long, but once I got into the story, I saw how the longer sentences changed the pace, making the story more languid, giving it a slow but deep air. I liked it. It’s not my style, but it was cool. And if that’s your style, more power to you. 

 

Did this article help you? What are your sentence writing tricks? Feel free to leave a comment or ask a question in the Facebook group if you’ve purchased the Come Write With Us Course!