Saturday, February 25, 2012

“Sentences are a little like purses…”

“Sentences are a little like purses: They come in various sizes and can hold a little or a lot.” (Bill Roorbach, Writing Life Stories)

“Just as there are arts of weaving and fly-fishing and dancing, so there are arts of sentence making.

“…Writing is a partnership with the reader.… The way you put your sentences together counts a good deal toward how your reader will understand what you say.  

“You can … arrange, rearrange, or prearrange them to suit particular purposes.

“The writer shapes the sentence to indicate how readers should construe the meaning.… Building a sentence, then, is a way of defining and specifying meaning, of focusing a reader’s attention.…” (Collette and Johnson, Finding Common Ground)

Short Sentences:

“… In artful prose, [sentence] length is controlled and varied. Some stylists write short sentences to strike a note of urgency.” (Joseph F. Williams, Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace)

“… Short sharp sentences increase tension in a scene.” (Lynda R. Young)

Here’s how Kristen Welch writes short sentences to express tension and urgency:  

“She came to us alone, with a baby she didn’t want stirring in her womb.

“Orphaned at a young age, she wandered this earth unloved and unwanted.

“Charity came to us broken, detached, angry.

“Outwardly she pushed others away, isolating herself through pain, distancing her heart from love.

“But we loved her anyway. We set firm boundaries and we loved. We prayed. We fasted. We begged God to draw her close. We shed so many tears over this child having a child.

“We feared for her unborn son. How would this detached girl attach to a baby she never wanted?

“He was born to an angry mother. She didn’t want him.

“And we didn’t know what to do.…”  (Kristen Welch, We Are THAT Family

Consider writing short sentences here and there in your vignettes, but also think about writing sentence fragments—incomplete sentences and thoughts.

Grammatically, sentence fragments are incorrect, but “There are occasions when a sentence fragment can be stylistically effective, exactly what you want and no more. ‘Harrison Ford has said that he would be more than willing to take on another Indiana Jones project. In a New York Minute.’ As long as you are clearly in control of the situation, this is permissible, but [doing so] depends on the circumstances.” (CCC Foundation, emphasis mine) 

Breaking the rules occasionally with sentence fragments can add punch to your writing. Or sizzle. Or grief.

Wednesday we’ll look at long sentences but for now, examine your WIPs (works in progress—your rough drafts) for sentences you can modify. (Remember what dear old William Zinsser said, “Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the second or third time.”)

Where can you write “quick, breathless utterances” (Williams) to create tension, urgency, drama, or emotion?


  1. Excellent. I'd not read anything on this before. thanks.

    We often do not talk in complete sentences. So writing with fragments seems more natural sometimes.

  2. Love this post,Linda and how the structure of the sentence can convey urgency just by its length. I'm looking forward to hearing about long sentences. Very interesting technique. Thanks!

  3. Very helpful post! Those short, sharp sentences were inspirational.

  4. I'm glad you enjoyed contemplating short sentences, friends! :)

    We'll spend a few days looking at long sentences, too. They key is writing varying sentence lengths.

    Tweaking sentences can be loads of fun for those of us who enjoy such things, but I recognize not everyone does, and that's OK, too.