Authors Answer 125 – Is Short Better?

You know the advice where authors are told they should be as brief as possible? Cut out any unnecessary words. Keep it simple. Everything short. Easy. Yes? No? How did this paragraph sound? We talk about this very topic.

Question 125 – Use short words, sentences, and paragraphs. Do you agree or disagree, and why?

Elizabeth Rhodes

Exclusively? No. You need variation in your sentence length, or your writing will sound monotonous.

Paul B. Spence

Only if you are writing for children. I assume my audience to be thinking adults with at least average IQ, probably even educated. If they can’t handle a word like existential or thermodynamic, they aren’t going to understand my stories anyway.

H. Anthe Davis

If this was a law, I would be in jail for life.  I have to consciously control the amount of dashes in my work — lest I end up with six sentences broken up like this one inside a single paragraph.  Semicolons are also my BFFs.  When I edit, I do try to break down some of my impossibly long sentences, especially since I often write them in the rough drafts because I’m still trying to figure out a concept; it’s sometimes possible to replace a whole clause with just a couple words, once I actually get what I’m trying to say.  But as I’ve had few complaints over my endless chains of words, and as I’ve read others’ novels which are just as wordy and tangled as mine, I don’t think the commandment to keep things short should be considered as anything more than a suggestion.  Yes, reread your stuff — out loud if possible — and chop it up where it needs it, but don’t chop it up Just Because.

Cyrus Keith

Agree, depending on the pace you want to keep. You may have a fight sequence. Short words and phrases move the pace quickly, because the action is brisk. Each punch, each kick, each shot, stands on its own. But if you’re waking to a pastoral scene next to a peaceful, meandering river, you want to slow down and relax a bit. Use the flowers, their scent, the taste of the water, the warmth of the summer sun, to lull the readers just a little. Just before you pour gasoline on your characters and set them on fire.

D. T. Nova

You shouldn’t use longer words just to show off your vocabulary, but to avoid them when they do seem more natural to you will come across as dumbing things down.

Sentence length should vary. Having too many long and complex sentences in a row can be hard to follow, but having too many short ones in a row can get monotonous.

Extremely long paragraphs should be used very sparingly, and never without reason.

Eric Wood

If you write children’s books, then yes. Keep it short, simple and easy to understand. If you write YA or for adults then feel free to expand upon the sentences. When short sentences and paragraphs are used too frequently the writing seems choppy and incomplete. To provide the reader with ample detail and imagery longer, more complicated sentence structure will be required. However, when writing a children’s book you need to take care to watch length and vocabulary.

Beth Aman

There’s a place for everything.  You’re a writer; words and sentences are your tools.  They are the building blocks that you use to create worlds and breathe life into characters – you should know how to use them.  Long, rolling sentences take longer to read.  They serve a purpose when used properly; I use them to explain things that take a long time to happen, or need a lot of words for.  They come across as luxurious, like thick carpet.  Short sentences are the opposite: they convey urgency.  They show that things are happening quickly.  I try to use short sentences (and words a paragraphs) for fight scenes and tense moments.  I think the trick to sentence length is this: read a lot, pay attention when you read, and pay attention to your own writing.  Read your writing aloud, get it critiqued, write a lot of things, and eventually it will become second nature.

C E Aylett

No, no and no. Please don’t. Variety is the writers friend. Learn how to use different word and sentence lengths to create effect. Some shorter sentences have a bigger impact if preceded by a long one. And some long sentences can convey wrought emotions better than any fluttering hearts and shallow breaths (read Pride & Prejudice for examples). There has also been a trend to substitute the use of commas for full-stops (periods). This not only creates a lot of fragments in the grammar, it also ruins the fluidity of the prose. Sometimes it works, depending on the voice, and intended style. But generally speaking, if you are not writing a story from a robot’s POV, avoid the stilted narrative and structure your sentences correctly. Except for when they demand you don’t for the purpose of effect. Using too many short sentences can also suggest the author is unable to handle complex sentences and concepts.

In my own writing, I tend to err on the side of short to medium paragraphs (though one paragraph could be one whole single sentence :D). I find white space is a writer’s best friend.

However, no matter what I say, it’s more important the writer finds their own style, what they feel comfortable writing. There’s no point inserting long words you don’t feel confident using, as that will be transparent. If using simpler text works for you then do that. I just finished a brilliant book called Chicago Loop which is an intricate exploration into the mind of a man with sexual psychosis. The vocabulary is not overly demanding but it didn’t stop the author from creating complex layers of character, so it read a lot more densely that it would have in the hands of a less experienced or talented writer.

What I would say all writers should avoid is the use of too many function words. Even with a good story too much <<to have/to be/doing/went/got/looked (my worse faux pas in first drafts)/etc.>> combinations and weak verbs and nouns will make an interesting concept bland.

Jean Davis

Disagree. That sounds like a choppy staccato mess. Variation in word, sentence, and paragraph length help a story flow more naturally and appear visually pleasing on a page.

Gregory S. Close

No.  Short words are not better words.  Short sentences are not better sentences.  Neither are short paragraphs.

Wait…

Tracey Lynn Tobin

Disagree. It all depends on a number of factors. I definitely agree that sometimes a thought can – and should – be written in the simplest, shortest way possible, but sometimes a bit of a ramble is necessary. Complex thoughts require complex words/sentences/paragraphs, and simple ones should be quick and to the point. All in all, any story should use a wide variety of all possibilities. There should be short sentences/paragraphs, and long ones, and the complexity of the word should depend on the point that particular word is trying to get across. Trying to keep everything as short as possible – or alternatively, trying to go the long route – makes a story boring. There needs to be variety, always.

Jay Dee Archer

I disagree, mostly. The length of sentences can affect the pacing of the scene. The length of paragraphs can affect how you read. The length of words can affect how you view the age level. But that’s not all. Ideally, there should be varied length in paragraphs and sentences, as well as words in some cases. If you’re writing an action scene, short sentences can be beneficial. It can make the scene feel more exciting. Shorter words can make you feel like you’re reading a children’s book. Shorter paragraphs can look like you can’t expand on anything. On the other hand, a wall of text can be difficult to read.

Shorter words can dumb it down. Don’t do this. Shorter sentences can be useful for action scenes. Use when appropriate. Shorter paragraphs are more common in dialogue, not narration. It really depends on the conversation. Vary the structure to make it sound more natural. That is important.

How about you?

What do you think? Do you prefer shorter or longer words, sentences, and paragraphs? When is it appropriate for them to be shorter? Let us know in the comments.

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11 thoughts on “Authors Answer 125 – Is Short Better?”

  1. What is meant by “short words”? Some writers (mostly newbies who haven’t gotten it out of their systems yet — and Alan Dean Foster) like to feed pepper to their pet thesaurus and then wait for it to sneeze all over the page, but that doesn’t mean EVERY writer who uses the occasional polysyllabic word is just doing it to show off, or that “big words” are a sign of bad writing, or that readers can’t handle/don’t like “big words.”

    (I suspect the Don’t Use Big Words “rule” may be an attempt to prevent thesaurus misuse: If it’s a small word, it’s more likely to be part of EVERYONE’S vocabulary, and if it is, it’s less likely to be misused in a sentence, whereas a word that the writer just discovered in a thesaurus may have nuances of connotation that they’re not aware of, in which case… *shrug* I don’t approve of writing “rules” that say “NEVER do this!” just because it’s too much effort for someone, somewhere, to explain WHEN it works and HOW to do it correctly/well.)

    Here’s a list of some words that Grammarly says are “too big” and don’t belong in a work of fiction written for adult readers: surrendering, particular, temporary, ordinary, habitation, vegetables, original, revealed, alternative, isolation, accelerate, experience, familiar, appropriate ,deteriorating, immediate. *shakes head* Anyone here honestly think these words are “too big”?

    Use whatever words, and whatever sentence structure, works best for what you’re writing. Sometimes it really is better to say that the heroine’s hair is titian rather than ginger. Sometimes (heresy!) long, complex sentences really do work better in a fight scene. And sometimes keeping it simple works best.

    1. “Here’s a list of some words that Grammarly says are “too big” and don’t belong in a work of fiction written for adult readers: surrendering, particular, temporary, ordinary, habitation, vegetables, original, revealed, alternative, isolation, accelerate, experience, familiar, appropriate ,deteriorating, immediate. *shakes head* Anyone here honestly think these words are “too big”?”
      Wow. Some of those don’t even have shorter alternatives that would work as well in most sentences.

      1. I THINK it’s based only on the number of syllables; anything over three is “not good” according to Grammarly. “Vegetables” is the one that really caught my attention, too. It’s in the normal speaking vocabulary of most four-year-olds, so how can it be “too big” for adults to read?

        1. Absolute foolishness. Their logic is totally unsound. I can see them suggesting against using words that the average person might not know, like, say…”multifarious” instead of just “complicated”, but if you’re presuming that people just can’t handle extra syllables, that’s foolish. For Pete’s sake, my daughter’s NAME has more than three syllables. lol

  2. I think using long or short words in writing should be like using garlic in cooking; it should enhance the finished product without being obvious. If I find I am attending more to the execution of a scene rather than the content, I think there is something wanting in the writing.

  3. Reblogged this on No Page Left Blank and commented:
    It’s another one of those things that gets discussed among authors, and there are a lot of strong opinions on either side. Is shorter better? Should your words, sentences, and paragraphs be short, quick, and go immediately to the point, or is it okay to stretch things out?

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