Let's begin with another experiment in writing. Please read the following two passages:
The flakes fluttered to the ground. It had started snowing at midnight. The ground was now just white. You couldn’t see the grass anymore. The road was completely covered too. That meant one thing — snow day! We could spend the day sledding.
The flakes fluttered to the ground. Even though no one was awake to see it, it had started snowing at midnight. Now, there was white everywhere—covering the grass, lining the branches of every tree, hiding the road that led to school. The snow was everywhere. Everywhere! Then I heard the phone ring in the kitchen — snow day! Is it too early to go sledding?
What do you notice about the two passages?
They both convey the same idea, but each creates a different mood and flow. One way this is accomplished is by varying the length of the sentences within the passage.
In the first passage:
Every sentence has exactly six words.
The rhythm is monotonous and the tone is pretty bland.
The short sentence lengths require a lot of starting and stopping. It is exhausting to read.
The choppiness hinders visualization, which affects comprehension.
In the second passage:
The sentence lengths have more variety. Some sentences are short (one word) and some are longer (21 words).
The passage is more conversational -- it has rhythm and flow.
You can read the passage with more fluency.
It is easier to visualize which makes it easier to comprehend.
Paying attention to and altering sentence length is something most student writers need to practice.
Writers can instantly improve the quality of their writing — and the experience for their reader — simply by switching up the number of words in their sentences.
During your read aloud, stop and talk about sentence variety and the effect it has on you as a reader. The read aloud is an excellent time to point out writing craft for your students to try out for themselves.
Using their independent reading books, have students count the number of words in each sentence for a paragraph or two. Talk about how sentence length affects them as a reader. Do they understand the story better? Is it easier to visualize? Does it tire them out?
During your shared writing time, be explicit in counting the number of words in each sentence that you compose. Ask students to share ideas for mixing the length up a bit. This can be a rich conversation that benefits all who are participating.
When doing your own writing, consider adding a short sentence when you feel a paragraph needs some zing!
Can you combine two shorter sentences into a longer, more complex one to add some variety? See how altering sentence length changes the mood and flow of your writing.
During the revision phase, have students pay extra attention to the number of words in each sentence. There does not need to be a drastic difference in each sentence, but they should mix it up a bit. Note: This is also a good way for students to identify run-on sentences. If they have a sentence that is 30 or more words, chances are it needs another look to see if it is missing some punctuation.
Mixing up sentence length is a writing move that is not difficult to master, but reaps great benefits for both the writer and the reader. Give it a try today and let us know how it goes!