Friday, July 1, 2022

2022 - July - The Long and Short of It


Quickly jot down your answers to these questions:

1. What is the average word length of a sentence?

2. A long sentence exceeds how many words?

3. What is the average number of sentences for a paragraph?

Here are the answers— 

1. 20 — The average word length of a sentence is considered twenty words, which is the exact word count for this sentence.

Why use such a benchmark for sentence length? Because twenty words can be said in one breath? Yes, that's true, but equally as important is that shorter sentences promote clarity (and as I've said many times— clarity trumps all rules.)

When writing fiction, it is the narrative voice (i.e., how a character or narrator thinks and talks) that the reader hears as they read. Does that narrator consistently speak and think in short, medium, or long sentences? Does that narrator consistently use simple sentence constructions or complicated or clause-filled sentences? Also, how complex is the narrator's language, diction, and syntax? Such things affect sentence lengths and brings characters to life on the page, making readers like them or hate them or feel neutral toward them.

Here's the thing: in fiction, a sentence can stand alone as a paragraph and a sentence can be as short as one word.

2. 30 to 40 — A long sentence is considered thirty to forty words. Exceed those thirty or forty words and clarity becomes an issue. So does running out of breath when speaking such sentences out loud. For the record, in READING LIKE A WRITER by Francine Prose, there is a 181 word sentence. By the way, no semicolons were used in that very clear-to-understand sentence. That sentence is broken apart by eight commas, one pair of dashes, and ends with one period. Those pieces of punctuation and the rhythm of the words allows for clarity and comprehension. It takes a pro to write with such clarity and comprehension at such a long length.

3. 3 — The average number of sentences for a paragraph is considered three (which translates to an average of sixty words.) However, all depends on the topic of that paragraph. After all, the supporting sentences to that opening line (i.e. the topic sentence) can range from three to five to eight. However, at twelve sentences, such a paragraph looks like wall-to-wall-words.

     Wall-to-wall words is a term used to describe blocks of type. When a reader comes to such a block, most readers think the subject matter is boring or too technical and they skip down to dialogue or the indentations to shorter paragraphs.

Here's a tip— any double-spaced manuscript page with four or fewer indented paragraphs should be looked at to see what's in those paragraphs. Those long paragraphs likely need broken apart for clarity. (For single-spaced pages, look for eight or fewer paragraphs.)

Take a few minutes today and go to your work in progress. Use your word processing program's zoom feature, reduce the pages to 50%. Count the white-space of paragraph indentations on each page. Also check for paragraphs that carry over to the next page. Do you have any wall-to-wall paragraphs?  

In those long paragraphs, did you find long sentences, semicolons joining clauses or sentences, or conjunctions like and joining sentences, or even run-on sentences?

Please share your findings with a comment to this blog.

Wishing you a safe and happy 4th of July celebration.

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                 Get the low-down on semicolons in Catherine's guidebook REVISION IS A PROCESS