Sentence Lengths

Short sentences, strong texts? The impact of sentence length.

Brevity is the soul of wit. But you can have too much of a good thing.

“Use short sentences. With five words maximum. That’s good, modern style.” Sounds impressive, right? But that doesn’t make it true.

If you only rely on short sentences, the main thing you’ll achieve is to make yourself sound like an out-of-breath marathon runner. Who has to. Pause after. Every other. Word.

Skillful writers make use of a whole orchestra’s worth of instruments to give each text its own unique rhythm. From short staccato sentences to endless piles of clauses, each has its place – in the right proportions.

Medium-length sentences: the text’s keynote

  • She breathed heavily, restless and confused. She hadn’t yet grasped what had happened.

The keynote of each text. Medium-length sentences consist of a main clause and a maximum of two sub-clauses. They ensure that the text flows well and is easy to understand, but they’re not particularly emphatic.

Staccato sentences: speed. Tension. Clarity

  • She breathed heavily. Restless. Confused. What had just happened? She didn’t understand.

The staccato style consists of strings of short, sometimes fragmentary sentences. The name comes from staccato notation – remember that from your music lessons? It produces clipped, choppy texts that are quick, exciting and easy to read.

The downside: you can’t keep creating tension indefinitely. Explosions are great, but if you don’t give your readers any time to understand the fallout, it won’t be long before you lose them. It’s like the Avengers films: they’re plenty of fun when you’re in the theater, but once the credits have rolled, no-one can remember what actually happened.

Sentences with stamina: the clause cluster

  • She hadn’t yet grasped what had happened; she felt restless and confused, and found herself breathing heavily.

This type of sentence usually combines a main clause with several sub-clauses. In contrast to the staccato sentence, it slows the pace of the text. This makes it more leisurely, but can also exhaust readers when overused. Used sparingly, however, it increases their focus by making them engage more intensively with the text.

Recursive sentences: when things get confusing

  • She breathed heavily, filled with restlessness and confusion, which came from the fact that she had not yet grasped what had happened.

Recursive sentences usually feature a large number of relative clauses. Readers may have to read them several times before their meaning becomes clear. That makes this type of sentence perfect for describing confusing or ambiguous situations, such as an emotional scene in a novel. However, recursive sentences are also tiring for the reader and may not be understood clearly. They should be used sparingly.

Dialog: keep it simple

  • “Why are you breathing so heavily?” he asked. “I don’t know,” she replied. “What happened?”

Dialog should be kept short – or medium-length at most. Anything longer sounds stilted and inauthentic. After all, speech is usually less formal than written language.

What does this mean for my text?

Staccato sentences have their place. Including here at Supertext. Here, they’re a key part of our house style. However, you can’t create a striking text without at least a few longer sentences to draw your readers deeper into your topic.

The important thing is to be aware of the effect that different types of sentence can have. And to use them accordingly. When you write your next text, try to use only medium-length sentences at first. This will make it easier to give the text a logical structure. Once you have this skeleton, start again from the beginning and create emphasis by adding sentences of different lengths. For example, add a surprising conclusion. A short one.

Cover image: Nick Murray via Adobe Stock

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