On this day in 1944, writing instructor Gary Provost was born. Provost earned his living as a freelance writer, authoring over 1,000 stories and articles. He also wrote books in a variety of genres, including young adult novels, true crime books, and books about writing.
In 1985, Provost published a comprehensive guide for writers called 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing. In the book Provost covered a range of topics, from overcoming writer’s block to avoiding punctuation errors. But one specific area he emphasizes is sentence variety (1).
Read the following paragraph out loud to both see and hear the point:
Sentences shouldn’t all be the same length. Seven-word sentences will surely bore your reader. Here is another super soporific seven-word sentence. Stringing them one after another is monotonous. Things change, however, when you start writing sentences that vary in length. Listen up. Can you hear the difference? When you write with sentences of varied length, your writing will sound more like natural spoken language. Try it yourself. Write some long sentences, some medium, and some short. Combine clauses. Rearrange phrases. Most importantly, read your sentences out loud. Use your ears as well as your eyes to read, listening for pleasing rhythms. Make your sentences sing.
Good writing has the rhythm and resonance of spoken language. Writers can’t write exactly like they talk. After all, much of our spoken language relies on nonverbal cues. Writers can, however, imitate one universal trait of spoken language: variety in sentence length – some long, some medium, and some short. As you revise your writing, read it aloud. When your sentences begin to sound monotonous, check for variety in the length of your sentences, as well as for variety in the type of sentences you write.
Today’s Challenge: Hold Your Ear Up to This Paragraph
What would you say is the secret to making written sentences sound as natural as spoken sentences? The paragraph below does not have much variety in sentence lengths. Read the paragraph aloud, and listen to where it could be improved. Then, revise the paragraph by breaking up or combining sentences as needed. You may eliminate any unnecessary words, but try not to eliminate any of the paragraph’s key ideas:
The words in a sentence are like Lego building blocks. The English sentence is made up of various parts. These parts snap together like Legos of logic. You can construct solid, syntactical structures to make sentences. English words, phrases, and clauses come in multiple colors and forms. The sentence builder can use them to construct many creations. Some of these creations are small, some are medium, and some are large. There’s no end to the fun you can have building sentences.
As you complete your revision, read it aloud. When you have finished, write down the number of words in each sentence. Check the range of the number of words in each of your sentences. Do you have some that are long, some that are medium, and some that are short? Use this strategy on your own paragraphs as a method of revision. Read aloud. Revise. And try to capture the magic of the spoken word in your sentences. (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)
1-Provost, Gary. 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing. New York: New American Library, 1985: 60-61.