How long should a sentence be? There are statistics that say you should avoid long, overly-wordy sentences in your formal writing. Longer sentences can be harder to read and understand. Publications like the New Scientist and the Economist usually have an average sentence length of 15-20 words. The rule of thumb is that shorter sentences are choppy and disjointed, while longer sentences are more difficult to read.
The answer, however, is more complex than that. If every sentence in your writing is the same length, it can become boring and monotonous. Great writers mix and match sentence length, combining long, descriptive passages with short, declarative sentences to provide contrast and balance, and to keep readers interested. It really works. There are plenty of examples of great, long sentences—take this one from Stuart Little:
“In the loveliest town of all, where the houses were white and high and the elms trees were green and higher than the houses, where the front yards were wide and pleasant and the back yards were bushy and worth finding out about, where the streets sloped down to the stream and the stream flowed quietly under the bridge, where the lawns ended in orchards and the orchards ended in fields and the fields ended in pastures and the pastures climbed the hill and disappeared over the top toward the wonderful wide sky, in this loveliest of all towns Stuart stopped to get a drink of sarsaparilla.”
That’s great, descriptive writing that gives you a clear picture of the setting and the environment. It’s 107 words, but it never feels overly wordy or lengthy—it’s length not only allows the writer to give a complete and detailed picture of the town in question, but it’s very length and wandering aspect feels like it fits a slow-paced small town, while a description of a fast-paced busy town like New York or something would feel more fitting in a burst of short, declarative sentences.
Other times, sentences far shorter than the 15-20 word goal can be far more powerful. In George Orwell’s 1984, the final sentence:
“He loved Big Brother.”
…is far more powerful as a short, declarative statement of fact after the horrors of the novel. It hits you like a ton of bricks. A longer, more meandering sentence would have diluted it of its power. Mixing sentence length allows you to be a better writer. By flipping between compound-complex sentences and shorter, declarative statements, you’re creating a more dynamic tapestry that will help keep your readers from feeling bored.
You have to find the style that fits your writing most comfortably. Charles Dickens liked long, meandering sentences. Earnest Hemingway preferred quick, to-the-point statements. At the end of the day, you need to write in the style that feels most natural to you—anything else will sound phony on the page.
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