Play with sentence length.
Huh, what? Why? Isn’t there enough for the copywriter to worry about as it is?
Don’t worry, this technique is pretty intuitive — and, just like writing the way you talk, it quickly becomes automatic.
There are several good reasons to pay attention to the length of your sentences and intentionally vary it.
Reason 1: To create rhythm.
When all the sentences are the same length, writing gets repetitive. Like a driver on a long and empty stretch of road, your reader begins to daydream or yawn. And, while your writing won’t cause an actual crash, you will lose your reader.
Gary Provost said it beautifully, so instead of trying and failing to outdo his brilliance, I’ll just quote it:
'This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.
Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals – sounds that say listen to this, it is important.'
We want our words to feel like music, not the humming of an industrial-size freezer, right?
Reason 2: To guide attention.
Imagine two signs side by side. One reads 'As you approach this point in the road, gently apply the brakes until you come to a complete stop.' The one next to it just says 'Stop.' Which one would you spot and read first? Which would you put outside a school gate, and which belongs in a driving manual?
That’s it for automotive analogies (though I’m sure my instructor would be proud) — you get the point. Your reader’s attention is your responsibility, and sentence length is one of the tools you can use to control it. In the words of Roy Peter Clark, 'Long sentences take readers on a journey. Short ones tell the gospel truth.' Good writing is a mix of both. When you do it right, the combination of long and short sentences creates rhythm. It’s how you keep your reader’s attention and guide it to where you need it most.
Reason 3: To help the reader understand you.
Research from the American Press Institute has shown that when the average sentence length is 14 words, people understand more than 90% of what they are reading. At 43 words, comprehension drops to less than 10%. With every word added after 14 words, comprehension drops by ~4%.
Those are scary stats. So let’s keep an eye on those longass sentences.
Once you start paying attention to it, varying your sentence length will become a habit. Here are a few tips to make it happen sooner.
Experiment with sentence length until you get the hang of it. Try merging two short sentences into one. Or try chopping up a longer sentence. Look at your befores and afters side by side. How has the rhythm changed? Has the emphasis shifted? Which option stresses the most important points? Which flows better?
Short sentences make your reader pause. Use them to make your key points. Use longer sentences to take your reader on a journey — ideally, an enjoyable one.
The best way to develop a sense for rhythm is to read great writing out loud, paying attention to the variation in sentence length.
Don’t focus too much on building a perfect rhythm. Just play until things fall into place. You will feel it when they have.
Put each sentence on a new line. I’ll explain:
Write like this.
One sentence per line.
This way you can see all of your different sentences at once.
Short ones and long ones.
Or maybe just long long long long looooong ones?
Seeing them like this makes it easier.
So you can write your whole piece this way, and once you’re happy with the rhythm and flow and variation…
Just take out the line breaks.
You’ve done it.
P.S. This last one is a trick recommended by Verlyn Klinkenborg, but I first heard about it from Derek Sivers — so I’m crediting both.
In the wild.
This time you’ve got 2 to choose from. Of course, if you’re feeling extra-keen, you can do both.
Your task: rewrite the copy with a greater variety of sentence lengths. You can make the piece longer if you want. You can even take liberties with the style and tone. But most importantly, practise what we’ve talked about today. Bonus points if you manage to include one-word, two-word, and three-word nano-sentences.
1. Let’s have a go at a brand manifesto. This one was written for Poseidon Diving Systems, and it’s not a bad one — but you’re going to make it even better.
'Diving is not a sport nor a creed — but a way of being for those who embrace curiosity, cherish freedom and delight in discovering the unknown. We are merely guests beneath the sea, and the more we are accepted by its inhabitants, the incredible creatures of the ocean, the deeper our understanding... This is the knowledge we strive for, the experience we live for, the prize we seek.'
2. This short piece sits on Lipton Tea’s ‘About’ page. It could do with a better rhythm and some copywriting TLC (that last sentence doesn’t even make sense). Go wild — turn it into an ode to tea, if you want. Just keep the main thought: Lipton believes that tea is the answer.
'For thousands of years, all over the world, tea drinking has been about friendship, hospitality, and sharing moments together. It can also provide an opportunity to take five, enjoy a few minutes to yourself and recharge your batteries. So whatever, whoever, and whenever, here at Lipton, we believe the answer is pretty much always: a great cup of tea.'
Dare to share.
Post your rewrites in the comments section below — anonymously, if you want.
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Thank you for reading — and writing.
Until next week!