Avoid adverbs. Delete qualifiers—and all other unnecessary words. Does any of this advice sound familiar? It should, if you’ve been studying how to write and edit with style in mind. The guidelines have merit, because the more concise your prose is, the more clearly your intent will come across. But overapplication can weaken your voice instead.
A book that’s the clone of hundreds of others won’t capture or keep a reader’s attention. Every sentence—the flesh and muscle of a story—must glisten. The most legendary writers, like Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf, are memorable because they honed their own idiosyncrasies into pleasing forms of expression. If you hope to write evocatively, you need to learn how to capitalize on any sentence length.
Short sentences grab readers, jump straight to the point, and imply urgency. Ernest Hemingway is famous for punchiness. Originally a journalist, he carried the habits he acquired from that profession into his fiction, as is evident in the two quotes below.
Remember that he who conquers himself is greater than the one who conquers a city.
I’m going to stay with you. If you go to jail, we might as well both go.
Neither sentence is particularly complex, but even out of context, both stir up emotions. Hemingway selected each word for maximum impact, and you can achieve the same results if you practice three of his principles for strong writing.
1. Incorporate the Senses
Short sentences require concrete nouns and verbs to be effective, and nothing is more immersive than sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes. You don’t need to include all of the senses, because that would be overkill, but a couple will ground your character in his surroundings and set the mood. In a high-intensity scene (which is likely to rely on shorter sentences), a character won’t stop to reflect on the thematic implications of his actions, but he will hear the click of a gun being cocked and inhale exhaust fumes as he dodges a hitman in an unlit garage during the early hours of the morning.
2. Use Figurative Language
Fast-paced moments don’t allow time for introspection. So, to hint at your character’s mental and emotional state, you’ll need to leverage words that have imagery attached. That’s Hemingway’s tactic in the first quote above. Conquer reminds readers of soldiers who face onslaughts of danger and fear in their quest to claim a territory. With a single word, Hemingway communicates that battling one’s inner self is more brutal than war. He doesn’t need an elaborate description, nor any build up to the point he’s making. The audience immediately understands.
3. Be Positive, Not Negative
In the second quote above, notice that the speaker promises he will stay when he could have just as sincerely promised that he won’t leave. Or could he? Imagine yourself in a tense situation where you need support from someone you care about. Which statement would be more reassuring: “I won’t run out on you” or “I’ll stand by you”?
The difference in the connotations, although subtle, is significant. The “I’ve got your back” phrasing suggests a deeper bond between the two individuals, because the speaker is so loyal that he isn’t even thinking about abandoning his friend.
As a writer, when you focus on what is instead of what isn’t, you cultivate a similar relationship of trust with readers. They won’t have to guess what you’re trying to say, or interpret your meaning from a backwards direction. Your prose will become much more vivid, and you’ll less likely slip into telling.
As functional as short sentences are, overuse will make your story feel simplistic and juvenile. Some scenes need to be more contemplative, and long sentences—Virginia Woolf’s speciality—are ideal for holding readers captive so they experience the full force of the emotions and message. Woolf isn’t wordy for the sake of flaunting her vocabulary. As the two quotes I’m about to share demonstrate, her grandiloquence has a purpose. She’s coaxing readers to slow down.
I feel so intensely the delights of shutting oneself up in a little world of one’s own, with pictures and music and everything beautiful.
For if it is rash to walk into a lion’s den unarmed, rash to navigate the Atlantic in a rowing boat, rash to stand on one foot on top of St. Paul’s, it is still more rash to go home alone with a poet.
In an essay titled “On Being Ill,” Woolf has a sentence that’s even more circuitous. At a shocking 181 words long, it’s challenging to process—enough that readers may question whether it’ll ever end. But Woolf designed it to symbolize the difficult journey through illness. While she could have conveyed her opinions with fewer words, the drawn-out ebb and flow offers readers a glimpse of the suffering that others go through on a daily basis.
Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the water of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s armchair and confuse his “Rinse the Mouth—rinse the mouth” with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us—when we think of this, as we are frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.
You don’t have to craft sentences that are hundreds of words long for your prose to be unforgettable, however. And most editors today wouldn’t recommend that either! But sometimes a scene will call for pacing that only complex, winding sentences can deliver, and when that happens, you’ll need to be familiar with techniques that ensure readability.
Woolf divides her sentences with punctuation to give readers space to breathe. In the second quote, commas separate the four clauses, which all display a recognizable theme of risky activities. Because readers know what to expect in each part, they can easily digest the whole. The third and largest quote depends on commas as well, and the list-like format of the opening segment guides readers forward.
Constructing long sentences may seem like a daunting task, but it can be an enjoyable undertaking for both you and readers if you imitate four of Woolf’s methods.
1. Create Patterns and Parallels
Woolf’s most powerful tool is comparison. It lends predictability to her sentences (this action is rash, and so is that one) without crossing the border to monotony. You don’t need to resort to blatant repetition in every case, though. In her 181-word sentence, she doesn’t regurgitate any particular idea. Instead, she relates illness to nature, which leaves the impression that health struggles are a normal occurrence in life.
2. Follow Correct Grammar and Punctuation
Long sentences can be exhausting to read, and without proper grammar and punctuation, readers will get lost. Commas, dashes, and semicolons provide resting places for eyes and minds that might otherwise zone out before reaching the period. Don’t let a sentence run on indefinitely, or it will seem sloppy and aimless.
3. Make Small Details Important
Short sentences accentuate specific pieces of information while straining out anything that’s less essential. In contrast, long sentences turn even the most minuscule factors into characterization. One of my favorite examples is from the short story “Wickedness” by Ron Hansen, which recounts the trials of various people during a blizzard.
A forty-year-old wife sought out her husband in the open range land near O’Neill and days later was found standing up in her muskrat coat and black bandanna, her scarf-wrapped hands tightly clenching the top strand of rabbit wire that was keeping her upright, her blue eyes still open but cloudily bottled by a half inch of ice, her jaw unhinged as though she’d died yelling out a name.
Zooming in on this woman reveals not only her age and location but also her personality and lifestyle from the clothes she’s wearing. She clung to the wire to prevent herself from falling over in the wind, and her mouth probably hangs open because the cold stole her last breath as she shouted for her husband. This woman only appears in one sentence, but that’s all Hansen needs to depict her desperation to be reunited with her husband.
4. Add Variety
Should you write short or long sentences? What about fragments? The answer to all of these questions is yes. Most of your writing should consist of ordinary, medium-length sentences, but alternating the length and structure within a paragraph or according to the pacing of a scene will create a cadence that delights readers. Sentences that differ complement and strengthen each other.
Even as you seek to intermix compound and compact sentences, you may end up gravitating to one more than the other. Pay attention to that preference. Study authors who are known for it, analyzing their word choices and why their style is distinct, and then translate those strategies to your own work. Just be careful that you don’t neglect the type of sentences you’re less inclined to write, because adaptability and openness to growth is what will bring you closer to mastering the art of beautiful prose.
Allison Raymond has been captivated by stories for as long as she can remember. She was only eleven years old when she came to recognize writing as God’s purpose for her life. Although many years have passed since that moment, she has never doubted this purpose. Instead, she chooses to spend her time working hard to make her dream of becoming a published novelist a reality.
Allison grew up in Virginia, Illinois, and Oklahoma. She now lives in Missouri, where she is attending college in pursuit of a degree in Secondary English Education. In the future, she hopes to become a high school English teacher to share her passion for storytelling with aspiring young writers. Currently, she shares this passion on her personal blog and in a large number of her daily conversations.