Lesson 9: Short sentences–strip sentences to bare essentials

At some point in the your high school career, your English teacher may have told you that the longest sentence in the world is several pages long, while the shortest is the easy-to-remember existential proclamation: “I am.” (If you are wondering, record holding longest sentence in the English literature is  over 13,000 words. See http://www.gavroche.org/vhugo/sentence.shtml for more information.)

Useless trivia? Probably, but when you are writing, varying your sentence lengths creates a more readable and more enjoyable document overall. This rule applies to both creative and practical writing projects; it can be a fun way to push yourself to use new vocabulary, play with structure, verb form, etc. In tomorrow’s class, we will practice writing very short sentences. The lesson will be a little grammar heavy, but I am hoping to stretch the creative mind by asking students to play a bit.

First, let’s review the most necessary and most basic of all punctuation marks, the PERIOD (.).

Likely, the period was the first punctuation mark you learned to use, and probably the first who were able to use correctly. Simply put, the period indicates the end of a sentence. Depending on how you use it, the period can decide the pace, and therefore tone, of a particular piece of writing. The placement, presence, or lack of a period can make a huge difference in the way a sentence is read and understood. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter if you are writing a grant proposal or a novel, knowing how to use a period to create interest, meaning, and clarity is a necessary skill for any writer.

*NOTE: In his book, A Dash of Style, Noah Lukeman has a chapter devoted to the humble period, and he does a great job demonstrating the dos and don’ts of period usage. Unlike some drier grammatical reads, Lukeman’s text focuses on the creative use of punctuation. His examples are not strictly grammatically correct because they are culled from a wide canon of literature, not from the The Chicago Manual of Style. The book is listed on the Good Reads page.

Short Sentences

Short sentences pack punch. Literary greats Hemingway and Carver utilized the short sentence frequently in their writing. Many less confident writers think that short sentences convey a dull or immature writing style, but used properly, a short sentence can say a lot more than a long, wordy, convoluted string of words from which the reader must labor to extract meaning.

To craft a strong short sentence, choose active verbs, avoid short filler words like “a”, “the”, “of”, etc. Once you start cutting them away, you’ll be surprised by how little you miss them.

For example: When I first typed out the first sentences of the “short sentences” section, I wrote this:

A short sentence can pack a punch.

While effective, and, yes, relatively short in length. I realized immediately that this sentence was not ideal, especially for the topic. I could cut it down using these steps.

1) I eliminated the helping verb “can.” I knew a short sentence doesn’t need two verbs, so I cut the verb that was doing less action, or at least, less interesting action. The pairing of “can pack” adds nothing to the sentence that “pack” can’t do alone, so I cut it. Once the helping verb was gone, I had to transform the active verb (i.e. the verb which carries the weight of the action being talked about which is “pack”) to work with the subject of the sentence–“a short sentence” meaning, the subject is singular, so I used the singular construction of the verb–“packs” instead of “pack”.  Thus:

A short sentence packs a punch.

2) Then I noticed I have the word “a” in there twice! That’s totally unnecessary. They add no pertinent information to the sentence, so I took them out.

Short sentence packs punch.

3) Lastly, I went pack over it with an eye for style. It doesn’t sound quite natural. I don’t want to alienate my reader with sentence structure that is not recognizable. A simple adjustment of the number of the subject and, of course, the corresponding verb remedies this problem.

Short sentences pack punch.

From seven words to four, yet I lost no meaning, and I gained (as the sentence demonstrates) punch. The sentence is quick, effective, and all I need to convey the whole idea.

Poets, writers, and English majors may have noticed I used alliteration. The “s” sound  in “short sentences” and the poppy “p” sound in “packs punch”  add an extra layer of meaning that further illustrate the point of the sentence. By using similar consonant sounds, I added audible interest to the sentence that goes beyond the basic information that the sentence conveys.

When writing short sentences, it’s perfectly acceptable to write a longer sentence first and then seen how you can cut it down to be shorter and more powerful. Note, also, that the sentence is no less “smart sounding” than the original, it is simple, but not simplistic. It’s not necessary to write them short the first time, but it helps to eliminate unnecessary words, adjust grammar, power-up verbs, or restructure to create a shorter line.  Writing short sentences takes time. More time, probably, than a long sentence. In fact, I have combed hundreds of words from this post already, and yet, with the exception of my example sentences, most of the lines are still pretty long. And I spent more time editing than writing the first draft!

Try it in your next email, Facebook post, tweet, or story. Pepper them in between longer sentences (more on that next time) to add, ahem, punch to your writing. In tomorrow’s class, we will work on this skill of sentences stripping.


About Taylor

Teacher/Writer/Word Nerd View all posts by Taylor

One response to “Lesson 9: Short sentences–strip sentences to bare essentials

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