EDITING 101: 32 – Sentence Length…

Sentence Length

There is no standard sentence length, but it’s still an important factor to consider when revising or editing your manuscript. A sentence can be as short as one word: “What?” On the other end, there are whole books written in one sentence only. Apparently, the current verified world record holder for the longest sentence is Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters Club, published in 2001, contains a sentence with 13,955 words.I don’t recommend this.

According to the blog “Readability Monitor”, “  Based on several studies, press associations in the USA have laid down a readability table. Their survey shows readers find sentences of 8 words or less very easy to read; 11 words, easy; 14 words fairly easy; 17 words standard; 21 words fairly difficult; 25 words difficult and 29 words or more, very difficult.” Since an author’s first goal is clarity and understandability, you would naturally want to aim for an easily understood sentence. There are times when a longer sentence is called for. This is generally in descriptive narrative passages. In literary works, it is not unusual for one sentence to make up a whole paragraph.

Action scenes, on the other hand, lend themselves to short, quick sentences. Shorter sentences speed up the pacing and increase the tension of such scenes. Longer sentences slow down the pace and ease the tension of a passage. Note how these two action scenes read differently with varying lengths of sentences; first long, then shorter.

  • Evan struggled in Ammon’s grasp, striving to break free in order to return the punch he had just received. He twisted abruptly to the left, successfully disengaging and kicking Ammon in the shins as he spun around. Ammon was unimpressed with the kick and grinned evilly, steadying his gait and raising his fists, his eyes glinting maliciously in the heat of the fight. Evan knew he was going to lose this one, as there was no way he could match the other man’s hatred.

  • Evan struggled in Ammon’s grasp. Striving to break free, he wanted to return the punch. He twisted abruptly to the left, successfully disengaging. He kicked Ammon in the shins as he spun. Ammon was unimpressed. He grinned evilly, steadying his gait and raising his fists. His eyes glinted maliciously. Evan knew he was going to lose. There was no way he could match the other man’s hatred.

While there is more detail in the first passage, a fight scene isn’t the place for a lot of detail. It’s the place for action, tension, and suspense. Short, tight sentences accomplish that well. The second passage could probably be tightened up even more.

Next week we’ll discuss ‘Research – How Much is Enough or How Much is Too Much?’

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This series is not meant to be (nor will it be) simple static information.

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If there’s something you specifically want (or need!) to see addressed in terms of self-editing, please let me know in the comments under this, or any of the articles of the series.





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