Content with the Technical: Balancing Structure— The Long and Short Sentence

(Photograph courtesy of Skye Studios via Unsplash)

Now that we’ve had some time to go through the basics of editing, outlining, and word choice, let’s switch gears a bit and take a closer look at our sentences. In particular, we’ll discuss the nature of both the long and short sentence, and try to identify some opportunities to utilize each.

Quick aside, there are many schools of thought when it comes to this topic, especially when academic writing gets dragged into the muck. There isn’t a one-size fits all style of writing, each assignment will require a specific approach, but understanding these basics will give us a good starting point.

Unruly Walls of Texts:

This common practice accounts for the majority of writing… where every sentence we draft is a multiple line, complex sentence likely with some questionable punctuation peppered in there for good measure. 

Everyone has fallen into the long sentence trap of writing walls of texts and unruly run-ons. Long sentences like these demand a great deal of attention from our readers and a deftly skilled hand during revision. We’ll see this most commonly in academic papers, but this long winded style will creep up into other professional communications. 

An easy test for identifying the difference between academic papers and typical professional communications can be found with our first read through of the document. If we can understand the main points on our first read, we are likely not reading an academic paper… (kidding).

But a long sentence following another long sentence will cause our readers to miss key points and iterative detail. Of course, we can’t completely eliminate our complex sentences, we just need a way to spotlight the material. 

Short Spotlight View:

Our method for highlighting the material we want to spotlight doesn’t come from complicated grammatical notation, or even shifts in overall structure— no, we’ll use something way more convenient, the short sentence. It’s our spotlight for quick revelation. What some would call a hook. Something that grabs and holds attention. The longer sentences allow us to frame our shorter ones and really drive home the sentiment by the simple contrast between the different lengths. These longer sentences require our readers to exercise more discretion to follow along, whereas the shorter sentence is so simple, it will offer that lasting impact. 

We can look back to the above paragraph to get a quick example of this method in practice. Our short “spotlight” sentence functions as both a means of communicating important detail, but also as a way of breaking up the otherwise droning effect of constant, multiple line, complex sentences. 

In-Line Engagement: 

Our ability to remain engaging hinges on our sentence variation. Unfortunately, an ‘all or nothing’ position will not help us, we have to be cognizant in our application of this practice. Too many long sentences will leave our readers in a fog of jargon and run-ons; however, if we rely too heavily on the shorts, we will frustrate our readers with painfully slow prose. 

A balance needs to be found between the two approaches to really capitalize on our reader’s attention. 

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Published by Jeffrey Graessley

Jeffrey Graessley is an R&D technical writer, poet and blogger (right here) @ Content with the Technical! Subscribe for weekly updates every Sunday morning!

7 thoughts on “Content with the Technical: Balancing Structure— The Long and Short Sentence

  1. I had to laugh at “questionable punctuation.” I’ve seen it soooo many times! Good stuff here. I’m a fan of short sentences for sure. They’re much easier to digest.

    Liked by 1 person

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