Power of WordsEvery so often, I come across an author trying to use short sentences and paragraph-fragments. Sometimes this author is one of my clients, and therefore hasn’t had the benefit of a good line-editor yet, but sometimes this habit makes its way to print.

And what’s wrong with that? After all, we speak in short sentences in real life. We don’t use academic grammar that has us continuing for several lines in the same thought, sometimes separated into more manageable chunks using semicolons; no, when people speak normally, they speak in fragments, rather than continuing on and on like this sentence, as if commas were going out of style.

Well, like with any part of writing, it’s a matter of art rather than science. Contrary to particularly pedantic grammarians, there are a lot fewer rules to English than we teach in school. In fact, as I’ve described previously, a lot of those modern grammar rules came about because certain people were overly-enamored with Latin and Greek and objected to the idea that English had become streamlined. (As if lots of rules meant a language was somehow more dignified.) That includes stuff like “Bob and I” versus “Bob and me,” which not even the rules-conscious French language (well, the official French language; there’s an even greater difference between academic and colloquial French than with English, which is why the French look so pained when you try to speak their language) has found a problem with.

So the problem with short sentences isn’t that there’s some rule against them. It’s that, as with any art, it’s a good idea to know what your tools are used for.

The first thing to understand is that written language is different from speaking. I’m not just saying they’re two different ways of communicating — that’s obvious, after all — but that the language is different. A lot of the rules of written language, even if it’s not trying to be truly formal and academic, are there to aid communication when we lack context such as tone, body language, or environmental references. Someone will speak differently when viewing a garbage dump versus a spectacular waterfall, or when a child is demanding attention in a park versus when it’s just adults at a formal dinner. When we speak face-to-face, we gain as much from context as we do from the actual words.

We’re all familiar with this, of course, because we know that online communication is rife with misunderstandings because of a text-based format without any of the extra stuff I just mentioned. What we don’t really think about very much is just how different spoken versus written language can be. You have to record a casual conversation to notice, or pay attention the next time you feel foolish for having said something in a strange way even though everyone who heard you knew exactly what you meant. They understood you, so why feel weird?

We’re so steeped in written language that it seems like the way people should talk, and if they don’t then they sound uneducated. We chastise a president for mixing up the words “four” and “five” when exhausted, or another president’s accent on an uncommon word, as if that is emblematic of a person’s intelligence level. The problem here is that we’ve only had about a generation of life where such persons are being recorded everywhere they go, and our cultural habits and understanding haven’t caught up to it. Speaking in grammatically-perfect sentences, with complete thoughts, in the “proper” accent, with complete off-the-cuff remarks, is exhausting.

And we also haven’t gotten used to the ubiquity of text communication now. Once upon a time, only a very small segment of the population could read and write. Then, as the availability of books increased, there was more demand for literacy. And with more literacy meant more people writing their own letters, which meant more people would write letters to each other. This lead to more and more communication through writing, as we didn’t have to wait until we saw each other again.

Just look at the contents of Pride and Prejudice. It seems like everyone in the book sends a letter to someone at some point in the story. The ones we get to see are often very long indeed, and in the film adaptations we see characters sitting stiffly at writing desks composing long letters in perfect calligraphy using fancy pens, often with voiceovers that narrate the events described in the letter. It’s easy to dismiss this as an upper-crust thing, since the poor wouldn’t be learning such good handwriting or spend time on such well-turned phrases. However, when you spend time writing by hand, you write more slowly than you can speak out loud; you get more time to figure out the best way to phrase things, especially when you’re also paying attention to the form of your letters as much as the form of your sentences.

When I was born, a lot of writing was still done by hand or by typewriter. Even when the computer was introduced as a common household product, you still had to spend the time to print and deliver, and so it was still worth working on the elegance of your words. It was still easier to type (and it’s no coincidence that longer novels started becoming the new norm when you didn’t have to mess with sheets of paper and whiteout), and written communication was more common than ever, but its speed hadn’t changed appreciably. When you have to deliver a physical letter, it makes little difference to the worth of writing it out if it takes a day or a week to arrive, or whether it’s delivered by car or by horse. Common speech can be handled by phone, after all.

It’s worth remembering that we’ve had less than twenty years of common Internet communication. My family got an Internet-access account in 1995, and while we weren’t exactly early adopters, we were still ahead of the curve. I remember attending a science camp a few years later where they showed us how to use a search engine. My niece and nephew would be astonished at the idea that anyone would think that was worth spending a class on, but back then most kids had no idea how to use it. I did, but I didn’t have much interest in it.

Now, everything goes out instantly. It takes the formality out of writing, and so our written communication starts looking more like our spoken. That’s not a bad thing, except when it comes to losing that extra information that a well-thought-out sentence might contain. Grammar rules are good if they support communication, but just knowing the difference between there, their, and they’re isn’t enough. Grammar rules try to turn writing into a science, when in fact it’s an art.


So now we come back to the idea of the short sentence. Clearly, there’s something wrong with the way some authors use it, but what? After all, we want the writing to feel natural, but if one bit of wisdom says sentences should contain lots of detail and another says we speak in short sentences on a normal basis, where can we find the happy middle ground?

Well, you don’t. You’re not looking for a middle ground, which implies that there’s a place to stay. You’re looking for how to use sentences.

You see, we speak in short sentences, but if we actually transcribe them — put the words directly down on the page in exactly the same way we spoke them — we tend to ramble. Punctuation, for example, is a written cue that gives us context that’s filled in when we speak. Our thoughts also don’t always come out in formal, proper order, and can sound weird even if it’s understandable.

Let’s take an example from a recording I happen to have. The speaker is describing someone who had been pedantic about movies with Hollywood physics being confronted on his inconsistency.

“. . . and, he was talking with someone at one point, and said, and he was describing a particular movie, and the other guy said, well, what do you think about the telescope in that movie in the observatory scene? Oh, it was fine. Really? You know, the one with all the blinking lights on it? Yeah. Well, you do realize that telescopes don’t actually have all those blinking lights, right?” [audience laughs] “And then, well, yeah, I hadn’t thought of that. Exactly. See, I was the one who designed that particular set. And I put those blinking lights on it because it makes it look more impressive on camera. And, you see, you had no problem with that. Because you’re focused on the physics, not on visual storytelling. There are certain times where you have to break the rules of reality.”

Well, that guy certainly doesn’t seem smart, does he? He’s rambling all over the place, and it’s hard to tell whether he’s the one speaking, or if it’s one of the people in the story he’s telling.

Well, that’s me, recorded before one of my convention talks started, talking to the audience about writing techniques. One of the major things you’re missing here is tone, including the vocal cues I used to shift between one character and the other, or when it was just me talking. For example, that last sentence is me speaking to the audience, but you can’t tell from the transcript.

Yes, I could put in internal quotation marks, but even then the sentence structure is strange. Look at that first line. I don’t use a period until I start switching between voices.

So while we speak in short sentences, we also speak in rambling and-and-ands. Short sentences don’t make your writing sound more natural, not if you’re using it all the time.


So what about dramatic emphasis? Surely we can use short sentences to be dramatic and punchy, right? Let’s test that.

Bob burst into the room. He jumped over the couch. He grabbed the ninja attacking Sally. Sally leaped to her feet, punching her attacker. She pulled off his mask. It was Old Man Reilly!

Sounds kind of lame, doesn’t it? Does it, perhaps, remind you of See Spot Run?

Bob burst into the room, leaping over the couch to tackle the ninja. He pulled the villain off Sally, who leaped to her feet, giving her attacker a punch to the gut for good measure before reaching up to pull off his mask. It was Old Man Reilly!

Long sentences there, except for the final one. So why does that feel natural? After all, the first example might read like a kid’s book, but when you read it out loud it doesn’t sound all that different?

Well, we’re back to the difference between spoken and written language. See Spot Run works because it sounds natural to the kid who’s learning to read, because adults are all talking in similar ways. But when we read, we treat a period as a long pause (or, to use the more-apt British term, a full stop). The more pauses you have, the longer your eye and brain take to read it.

You can see the same thing in graphic novels. Lots of small panels, even without dialog, slow down the action and give extra weight to what’s going on. Big panels, even though they’re showing fewer “slices” of the action, feel quicker. The fewer packets of discrete information, the faster the information is processed.

This is why, when we speak off the cuff for more than a few words, we tend to do it in fragments with lots of “ands” and “y’knows,” as we continue on down a line of thought rather than break it up into smaller fragments. If we’re going back and forth with someone, then we speak in short sentences. If we’re monologuing, we tend to ramble.


Understanding sentence use is key. Short sentences tend to slow things down. Long sentences, when you get right down to it, are somewhat paradoxical in how they move by quickly. Short does not mean dramatic. Long does not mean boring. A lot of new writers will think that, especially with fight scenes or brooding exposition, that short sentences are more sophisticated.

And that unnecessary one-sentence paragraphs are very dramatic.

Now, again, writing is an art and not a science. I can’t tell you how to do it. There are a near-infinite number of ways to write a story. It’s a lot easier to talk about what doesn’t work. Figuring out the balance between how it sounds to the ear and how it looks to the eye is, frankly, something that only comes about with practice.

When I started out, I too thought that short sentences would be more dramatic. It feels like they should, but I came to realize that’s just because I type slower than I think, and so I don’t realize the difference in rhythm until I read it again — and I have to wait long enough first that I don’t just see what I meant to write, and instead see what I actually wrote. This is why alpha readers should always be someone who either knows writing, or knows how you think. Preferably both.

Okay, so I can’t say exactly how to write it, but can I point to an example that works? Like, say, the previous paragraph?

Well, while I wasn’t trying for great prose, look how the first sentence is of medium length, introducing an idea. Then, once that idea has been set, I type a near-run-on sentence, breaking it up with “and so” as well as an m-dash. It packs more information all at once, because it’s meant to be considered as a whole. That sentence then ends on an emphatic emphasis, so it’s clear to the eye — because you see a little ahead of where your brain has fully processed the word — that this particular thought is building to a more dramatic tone. Then the next sentence finishes the thought with something of medium length, leaving the final sentence to punctuate the thought. Your brain pauses naturally at that point, letting the information sink in.

If you’ve studied musical theory, then you can probably fill this in with lots of words about rhythm and timing. For the rest of you, the phrase “mic drop” comes to mind. It’s come to signify not just a completion of a thought, but that no further thought is necessary. It gives you time to pause and consider what’s just been said.

And, now that you’ve managed to make it through all of this, you might be able to appreciate what Gary Provost meant when he said that varying sentence length can produce music.

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”