Gary Provost on Writing: Vary Sentence Length

Writing is an art, but it does not mean that there aren’t techniques that students (and teachers) can learn to make their writing sing! There are many creative writing workshops today for students and professionals that profess to do just that, but as early as 1985, one pioneer set the standards with his book, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.

The title may not sound inspiring, but the methods sure are; here’s one excerpt from the 100 Ways:


This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.

Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music.

Did you read it, either aloud or mentally? Was there a difference between the two paragraphs?

I am always pleasantly surprised to come across gems like these. I seek to impart these nuggets of writing know-how to my students; the challenge, of course, being how to deliver it in a way that they can apply to their writing!