Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Writer's Lab: Varying sentence length for better writing

The best academic writing is easy to ready and understand, we all know this. But exactly how do we define a text that is easy to read and understand? Which writing style techniques can we apply to make sure we present our information to the readers in the clearest way possible?

We know that we shouldn't use too much jargon to avoid scaring off our readers or sounding overly complex. We know that we shouldn't write sentences that are a paragraph in length (unless you are Julius Caesar). We know that we should avoid passive voice as much as we can.

If you analyze texts that you yourself would consider as accessible, you will see that these text typically have variation in the sentence length. These texts are not a sequence of super short sentences. If you read a paragraph full of short sentences, you will feel that the text is not flowing, but rather is being cut short by the accumulation of short sentences.

When you strive for using a variable sentence length in your writing, and are struggling to implement this element of style, try the following technique:

First, try writing your paragraph using sentences that are as short as possible. Then, revise and vary the sentence length by adding some of these sentences together.

After you have revised your paragraph in this way, make sure that all your sentences follow eachother in a logical manner. Your sentences should be connected to what comes before and after them to get a flowing text. If your paragraph doesn't work, give it a drastic make-over, as Nicole Barker explained us before. Your paragraph will only work once your sentences form integrated text - this statement sounds so blatantly obvious, but in daily practice, it seems a little harder to obtain.

Once you have your paragraph all sorted out, you can then continue writing paragraphs. Then, you will need to revise a section consisting of paragraphs. Again, check if you have some variation in paragraph length, and if all paragraphs are connected to what comes before and after them. Your sentences are indeed similar building blocks in the logical structure of your text as your paragraphs - micro and meso level you could call them.

Have you tried this technique for achieving a better writing style? How do you like it?


  1. This feels like it combines well with reverse outlining (see http://explorationsofstyle.com/2014/06/25/reverse-outlines-from-the-archives/). Have you tried a writing workflow where you outline, write paragraphs with the shortest sentences possible, rearrange paragraphs using reverse outlining, and then merge sentences?

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    2. Here's a post on that topic, too: http://phdtalk.blogspot.nl/2013/07/writers-lab-constructing-effective.html

  2. Nice post! I like short sentences because they are easier to write accurately. The trouble is that after a while the cadence of you writing is something like a machine gun and impossible to follow. I use longer sentences to intentionally slow the reader down when the text becomes too choppy or I want to make an important point.

    1. ... and that went out too fast. I'm the opposite: if I don't pay attention, I write paragraph-long sentences. Too much Caesar in school I presume.