Considerations for Sentence Variety

The American writer Ursula LeGuin was a prize-winning author of both science fiction and fantasy fiction. In the course of her career, she created thousands of narrative sentences. A sentence can do “an infinite number of beautiful, surprising, powerful, audible, visible things,” LeGuin wrote in Steering the Craft, a book version of a writing workshop she taught. “But the basic function of a narrative sentence is to keep the story going and keep the reader going with it.” The point was so important that she repeated it: “The chief duty of a narrative sentence is to lead to the next sentence” (39).

So, how does a writer “keep the story going and keep the reader going with it,” with one sentence leading compellingly to the next sentence? A key step is to vary both the length and the structure of the sentences. Too many sentences of the same kind may seem distracting or annoying and cause the reader to lose interest. 

1) As you review your initial draft, examine each sentence asking “What’s next?” Does your current sentence flow naturally from the one before, drawing the reader into the subsequent one?

2) If you are writing for a literate, adult audience you may wish to use simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences with all the variations in which you can render them. However, if you are writing for younger members of your family—your grandchildren, for instance—you likely will want to use mostly simple and compound sentences. For younger readers, those are easier to understand. If you are targeting a particular age range, go to the library and look at children’s books for that age. See what kinds of sentences the writers use and how they find variety, even if they do not employ complex or compound-complex sentences.

3) In our time dictaphones and small portable tape recorders have transitioned to digital recorders that can be used with voice-recognition software. This affords us a wonderful tool and the automatic transcription saves considerable in time. If we do use such technology, however, we need to remember that most of our sentences will be simple and compound. That is the way we talk. As we review our computer-transcribed text and set about our revising it, we may need to add complex and perhaps even compound-complex sentences, to insure that we have interesting variety.

4) Our age has been strongly influenced by journalistic writing, including the reporter’s literary style popularized by novelist Ernest Hemingway. The ornate and extended prose used by some Victorian writers is no longer common or even admired (e.g. Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, George Eliot, the Brontë sisters, Thomas Hardy). Yet an awareness of the sentence structures so skilfully used by earlier writers can help us to extend our writing skills and to improve our style. Complex and compound-complex sentence structures can contribute to the “music” of our piece, establish  powerful rhythms and achieve a vital sense of balance. This is not the way we tend to speak when we just “tell a story,” but in our writing greater complexity can be powerful and beautiful.

Sentencing without Offence

Four Basic Sentence Structures

Reading Like a Writer: At the Sentence Level

Considerations for Sentence Variety