Monday, 13 October 2008

#39 – Vary the sentence length

Or how to pace an article.

Long travel articles
Travel articles, by and large, are quite long. It’s often the case that people will start to read one, and not make it to the end. This is always going to happen, but there are some ways of holding the interest, and one major method is varying the pace of the article.

Short, sharp shock
I have read plenty of articles that plough on interminably, either with long sentences or continual medium-sized sentences. They’re really hard to read, and the short, sharp shock of a small sentence can often be invaluable.

Cormac McCarthy
Often the skill of a writer is not in what he or she does use, but in what they do not. For an example of how sparse language can be far more affecting than page after page of flowery prose, read something by Cormac McCarthy (such as The Road or No Country For Old Men). His economy with words is fantastic.
But for a concrete example, check out the two paragraphs below. Which do you think reads better?

Version one
“The fat American is holding the whole queue up. You would have thought that he would realise that this isn’t for him. After all, you don’t tend to see too many 22-stone whales climbing big rocks. There’s no point in trying to tell him that, though.”

Version two
“He’s fat. He’s American. And he’s holding the whole queue up. Anyone with an ounce of sense would have probably realised that climbing big rocks is not a suitable past-time for a whale of approximately 22 stone. But, hey, try telling him that.”

I much prefer the second, and it’s largely due to the variation in sentence length. OK, so there’s a long one in the middle, but that’s balanced out by punchier ones either side.

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