This is the second in a series of exercises designed by Melinda Morris and me for WordForge, our local writer’s group.
This exercise focuses on sentence length and its effects.
The exercise requires multiple revisions, so allow yourself plenty of time.
First draft. Write a piece in 3rd person that includes activity of some kind, but no dialogue. Start your piece any way you like. Write the first draft using your usual process. Write it as long as you need it to be, but try for at least 500 words, to give yourself enough material to work with.
First revision: Short sentences. Rewrite the piece using sentences no longer than 10 words each. No sentence may be longer than 10 words. Write the best short sentences you can.
Second revision: Long sentences. Rewrite the piece using sentences no shorter than 25 words each. Every sentence must be at least 25 words long. Write the best long sentences you can.
If writing either of these lengths is easy for you, adjust the lengths until it becomes difficult. If you usually write sentences of 10 words or fewer, use a maximum of 7 words per sentence, or 5 words. If 25 word sentences are a breeze, try 30 words. The point is to challenge yourself by working outside of your comfort range in order to observe how sentence length effects a piece. Within these restrictions, write the best sentences, the best paragraphs, and the best piece you can.
Write each revision as long as you need it to be. Make sure that each sentence within each version make sense, and that each version makes sense as a whole. w Analyze the effects of sentence length. Analyze your three drafts (the first draft and the two revisions) to identify the effects of sentence length. Make notes about what you observe.
Final draft. Write your final draft however you wish, but give particular attention to sentence length. Really look at the differing lengths, and apply what you learned about sentence length during the first two revisions. Always use the sentence length and structure that best serves your piece.
As you revise, notice the choices you make about how to shorten, lengthen, slice, or combine sentences. Notice the effects of each choice, and whether you like each effect.
When you’ve finished revising, consider:
- What challenges did you experience? What was difficult? How did you solve the problems?
- What surprised you? What meaning do you make of your surprise?
- What patterns do you notice in the structures of your short sentences? Of your long sentences?
- What patterns do you notice in the types, lengths, and arrangement of phrases and clauses in your long sentences?
- In your final version, what similarities and variations do you notice in sentence lengths and structures? What patterns do you see in the arrangement of short and long sentences?
- Read each version aloud. What makes a sentence easier or harder to read?
- How did focusing on sentence length affect other elements of your writing?
Also, as you revise, keep in mind narrative flow.
First, a randomly selected long sentence from a randomly selected page of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror:
On reaching the palace, Marcel mounted with part of his company to the Dauphin’s chamber, where, while he made a show of protecting the prince, his men fell upon the Dauphin’s two Marshals and slew them before his eyes. [39 words]
Here is my favorite opening line ever, from John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany:
I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice–not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany. [54 words]
Finally one from Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, which I just started reading. Prior to this sentence, Clare has bumped into Henry in the library. She’s met him many times, but he’s never met her. (It’s a time-travel thing, yo.) Clare asks Henry out to dinner. Then comes this:
We plan to meet tonight at a nearby Thai restaurant, all the while under the amused gaze of the women behind the desk, and I leave, forgetting about Kelmscott and Chaucer and floating down the marble stairs, through the lobby and out into the October Chicago sun, running across the park scattering small dogs and squirrels, whooping and rejoicing. [59 words]
Melinda and I would love to know how you use this exercise and what you learn from it.
If you have questions, suggestions, or anything else you’d like to say, please comment.