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Dr. Karen Palmer

Imagine a world where all music was in a single monotone, all paintings were the same shade of green, and all dancing consisted of one slow dance step. Writing with only one kind of sentence style would fit nicely into that world. In truth, music, art, and dance gain much beauty and interest from wide variation. You, as a writer, also have the option to vary your sentence style strategically.

Varying Sentence Length

Text of varying lengths is easier to read than text where the sentences are all about the same length. A whole page of extremely long sentences is overwhelming. Try reading a high-level academic paper on a scientific topic. The sentences are often long and involved, which results in difficult reading. A whole page of very short sentences, on the other hand, is choppy and seems unsophisticated.

Consider the following text that begins the first chapter of Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad. Twain begins with a long sentence (thirty-three words), follows with a medium-length sentence (seventeen words), and closes with two short sentences (six and five words, respectively). This mix of sentence lengths creates text that flows smoothly and is easy to read.

One day it occurred to me that it had been many years since the world had been afforded the spectacle of a man adventurous enough to undertake a journey through Europe on foot. After much thought, I decided that I was a person fitted to furnish to mankind this spectacle. So I determined to do it. This was in March, 1878.

Now read a different version of the same paragraph. Notice how the short sentences sound choppy and juvenile.

I was thinking one day. I thought of something the world hadn’t seen lately. My thought was of an adventurous man. The man was on a walking trip through Europe. I thought some more. Then I decided that I should take such a trip. I should give the world something to watch. So I determined to do it. This was in March 1878.

Here’s another version of the same paragraph written in one long and rather overwhelming sentence.

One day it occurred to me that it had been many years since the world had been afforded the spectacle of a man adventurous enough to undertake a journey through Europe on foot, so after much thought, I decided that I was a person fitted to furnish to mankind this spectacle, and it was in March 1878 that I decided I was determined to do it.

Combining Sentences

Choosing exactly the right mix of sentence lengths can be challenging. If you use too many short sentences, your writing will be viewed as simplistic. If you use too many long sentences, your writing will be considered convoluted. Even if you use all medium-length sentences, your writing might be dubbed as monotonous. The trick is to use a variety of sentence lengths. If you find you have too many short, choppy sentences, you can combine some of them to add a little variety.

Since an abundance of short sentences will give a simplistic appearance to your writing, you don’t want to use an excessive number of them close together. You can combine short sentences as a means of explaining an idea or a connection between two ideas. When you combine two complete sentences, you have to choose to either subordinate one of the ideas to the other or coordinate the two ideas by giving them equal weight. Your choice should always reflect the intended emphasis and causality of the two initial sentences.

Two short, choppy sentences Combined sentence
He snarled at Princess. She snarled at Rover. Rover snarled at Princess, but she proved to be the alpha dog by snarling right back at him.

Using a Variety of Sentence Formats

Like making all your sentences the same length, starting all your sentences in the same format—say, with “the” or “there”—could result in seriously boring text. When almost every sentence of a text begins exactly alike, it develops a boring and monotonous rhythm.

Original: The girl was terribly upset when her purse was stolen. There wasn’t anything that could get the image out of her mind. The thief was running when he grabbed her purse. The girl didn’t see him coming and was caught off guard. The girl fell down and never got a good look at him.

As a rule, within a given paragraph, you should try to avoid starting more than two sentences with the same word. Even if you vary your openings slightly but still follow the basic subject–verb–object format every time, you’re missing an opportunity to make your sentences more interesting.

Revision: Having her purse stolen upset the girl terribly.  Her mind held onto the image and would not let it go. Unfortunately, she didn’t see him coming and was so caught off guard that she fell down and never got a good look at him.

One technique that will help you avoid using the same format is to make a conscious effort to vary your sentence constructions. Along with changing the beginnings of sentences, you can add variety by combining sentences, adding words, expanding descriptions or ideas, and creating and moving clauses. Using all these techniques throughout a paper will create a nice mix of sentence formats.

Sentence Constructions Examples
Opening adverb Slyly, Princess snatched the bone while Rover was looking away.
Conjunctive adverb Rover thought he was guarding his bone; however, Princess was setting up her moment.
Coordinating conjunction Rover had the bone, but Princess was determined to get it.
Dependent clause While Rover was looking away, Princess snatched the bone.
Introductory phrase Feeling jealous, Princess made a plan to get the bone.

Adding Words

You can add variety and interest to your sentences by adding words to expand the sentences. This suggestion in no way means to add meaningless words to a sentence just to enlarge and change the sentence. Only add words when they add value to your work.

A short sentence Value-adding words added to a short sentence
Rover had a bone. Rover was gnawing on a bone in the corner of the yard under the cherry tree.

Expanding Descriptions or Ideas

This tactic is more specific than the “add words” tactic, but it can be coupled with it.

An existing sentence Expanded descriptions and ideas
Rover was gnawing on a bone in the corner of the yard under the tree. My Lab, Rover, was gnawing on a rawhide bone in the corner of the yard under the cherry tree.

Creating and Moving Clauses

Adding new clauses or moving existing clauses is another way to add interest and variety.

Sentence with a clause Sentence with the clause moved
Rover was a large Labrador, and Princess was a small poodle who got the best of him. Although Princess was a small poodle, she got the best of Rover, a large Labrador.

Exercise 1

1. Rewrite the following paragraph using some of the sentence variation ideas in this section. After you are finished rewriting, identify the types of changes you made:

My family went on vacation. It was the summer after my first year of college. It was odd not to be in charge of my own actions. My parents were nice but always in charge. My brother and sister were fine with it. It wasn’t OK with me, though. It wasn’t OK with me to have to go to bed at 10:00 p.m. My idea would have been to go to town then. My parents said it was bedtime since we had to get up early to go hiking. It wasn’t my idea to go walking early! My next vacation might be with friends. It will be nice to go with my family again as long as it isn’t too soon.

Exercise 2

1. Rewrite this sentence so that it begins with an adverb:

My roommate found my cell phone.

2. Rewrite this sentence so that it begins with an introductory phrase:

It is a long, interesting drive.

3. Combine the following two sentences into one sentence where the relationship between the two ideas is emphasized:

In size, Idaho is the fourteenth-largest state in the United States.

In population, Idaho ranks thirty-ninth in the United States.

Exercise 3

1. Write a paragraph about a childhood memory. Include about one-third short sentences (seven or fewer words), one-third medium sentences (between twelve and twenty-four words), and one-third long sentences (more than twenty-five words). Include at least ten sentences. After each sentence, include the number of words in parentheses.

2. Write a paragraph about something you have done during the last couple of weeks. Do not use more than two sentences with the same format or opening phrasing. Include at least eight sentences.


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    The RoughWriter's Guide by Dr. Karen Palmer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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