Last week I started talking about some of the common issues we see when reviewing manuscripts that are submitted to Divertir Publishing. This week I wanted to continue that discussion and talk about sentence length.
Our first short story collection, When Nightmares Fall, had terrors in the night as the theme, so we received a lot of submissions in the genre of horror. Something about one of the stories wasn’t working for me. I ran a grade level computation on the story and quickly realized my problem; the story was written at a second grade reading level. For those who are trying to imagine what horror written at a second grade level might sound like, consider the following:
See Dick. See Jane. See Dick and Jane.
Jane has an ax. Worry, Dick, worry.
Jane is chasing Dick with the ax. Run, Dick, run.
Jane is hacking Dick to bits. Scream, Dick, scream.
In computing average grade level, most of the methods consider the number of words with more than two syllables and the average sentence length. Short, simple sentences like the ones in the above example are fine for younger children because children have shorter attention spans and more limited vocabularies. But as we grow older our attention spans increase and our vocabularies mature. For adults, the number of breaks in the above example is actually a distraction which can cause a reader to lose focus, and thus interest.
The same is also true for very long sentences; a reader can lose focus if a sentence is too complex. The result is the reader needing to go back and reread the sentence to get the full meaning. If a reader needs to do this too many times, the reader will quickly lose interest in what you’ve written. In one submission we received a single paragraph contained 2 periods and 8 commas. The complexity of the sentences made it difficult to understand what point the author was trying to make.
Does this mean you should never use short or long sentences? No. Short sentences can be used for emphasis, while long sentences can show a character deep in thought. But just as variety is the spice of life, varying your sentence lengths is one way you can make your writing less monotonous and more interesting.