In my high school English classes, I often mistook a long sentence for a powerful one. I wrote sentences that dripped onto four or five lines and were crammed with commas, semicolons and conjunctions. I thought these fat blocks of text proved I was brilliant and complex.
I was wrong.
Long sentences quickly become complex in a bad way: too many ideas strung together, too little time for the reader to take a mental breath and process. Short sentences gain power from their simplicity. They’re the John Waynes of composition, using the fewest number of words to make the biggest emotional impact on readers.
Here’s an introductory essay paragraph that will show you what I’m talking about.
Standing at the top of a 14,000-foot-tall mountain is the wrong time to realize you’re afraid of heights – sure, I had climbed rock walls and ridden rollercoasters before, but now my knees were shaking, I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and my brain was hitting the Panic button.
This opening image teems with tension, but some of its intensity gets lost in the sentence’s length. Readers need time to construct your world in their minds. Without carefully placed periods acting as stop signs, readers will race right by important details.
We can intensify this same image simply by inserting a few periods.
Standing at the top of a 14,000-foot-tall mountain is the wrong time to realize you’re afraid of heights. I had climbed rock walls and ridden rollercoasters before, but this was different. My knees were shaking. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. My brain was hitting the Panic button.
Do you hear the difference? The short sentences help readers feel your anxiety. It’s almost like we’re short of breath, too. Now each of those feelings is a separate event, rather than being lumped in with other information in the long sentence.
Long sentences dull the emotions you’re trying to build in your story. Short sentences are like tiny bullets being fired. They’re powerful. They’re memorable. They’re smart.
See what I just did there?
Photo credit: Paxson Woebler, Flickr