What Good Writers Do—Alternate Between Short, Medium-sized, and Long Sentences

Props to Nicholas Kristof for rankling the intelligentsia by saying what’s painfully obvious to anyone that’s skimmed an academic journal lately—professors have little influence on public life in large part because they write “gobbledygook”.

There’s a relatively simple way for my colleagues and me and you to improve our writing. By following the lead of jazz musicians and alternating in unpredictable ways between short, medium-sized, and long sentences.

Consider George Packer’s opening sentences in his current New Yorker piece about Amazon.com*:

Amazon is a global superstore, like Walmart. It’s also a hardware manufacturer, like Apple, and a utility, like Con Edison, and a video distributor, like Netflix, and a book publisher, like Random House, and a production studio, like Paramount, and a literary magazine, like The Paris Review, and a grocery deliverer, like FreshDirect, and someday it might be a package service, like U.P.S. Its founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, also owns a major newspaper, the Washington Post.

Short, long, medium. A lot of writers fail to engage readers because they use medium-sized sentences almost exclusively.

Another example from the same piece:

Origins, though, leave lasting marks, and Amazon remains intimately tangled up in books. Few notice if Amazon prices an electronics store out of business (except its staff); but, in the influential, self-conscious world of people who care about reading, Amazon’s unparalleled power generates endless discussion, along with paranoia, resentment, confusion, and yearning. For its part, Amazon continues to expend considerable effort both to dominate this small, fragile market and to win the hearts and minds of readers. To many book professionals, Amazon is a ruthless predator. The company claims to want a more literate world—and it came along when the book world was in distress, offering a vital new source of sales. But then it started asking a lot of personal questions, and it created dependency and harshly exploited its leverage; eventually, the book world realized that Amazon had its house keys and its bank-account number, and wondered if that had been the intention all along.

Short, medium-long, medium, short, medium, long. No identifiable pattern. Which is what we should replicate.

Shame on me for concluding with three short sentences. Follow Packer’s lead, not mine. Make that five sentences. Now six.

* I highly recommend the Packer piece which I’m only halfway through.

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