Nowadays I’m an editor, but my formal education is in engineering. You could call it “leftover occupational hazard” when a former engineer thinks about editing and ends up making a graph, a plot, a sentence curve.
curve – noun \ˈkərv\
a curved line on a graph that shows how something changes or is affected by one or more conditions
Do a quick Internet search, and you’ll find several articles advising you to vary sentence length for your best writing. I’m simply turning that advice into a visual tool.
Here are 5 steps to plot your own sentence curve and improve your writing:
1. Pick a paragraph or two from your work in progress.
2. Number the sentences (first sentence = 1, second sentence = 2, and so on).
3. Count the number of words in each sentence.
4. Make a graph with “number of words” as the vertical y-axis and “sentence number” as the horizontal x-axis.
5. If the result is a flat or almost flat line (meaning that your sentences are all about the same length), rewrite to vary sentence length.
Let’s take an example from Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab) and make a sentence curve. Below are the sentence curves of the first example paragraph and the revised paragraph.
Many really good blues guitarists have all had the last name King. They have been named Freddie King and Albert King and B.B. King. The name King must make a bluesman a really good bluesman. The bluesmen named King have all been very talented and good guitar players. The claim that a name can make a guitarist good may not be that far-fetched.
Word count of each sentence, in order: 12, 12, 11, 13, 15
What makes a good bluesman? Maybe, just maybe, it’s all in a stately name. B.B. King. Freddie King. Albert King. It’s no coincidence that they’re the royalty of their genre. When their fingers dance like court jesters, their guitars gleam like scepters, and their voices bellow like regal trumpets, they seem almost like nobility. Hearing their music is like walking into the throne room. They really are kings.
Word count of each sentence, in order: 5, 9, 2, 2, 2, 10, 24, 10, 4
The difference is especially obvious when one sentence curve is superimposed on the other—old paragraph (green) versus revised paragraph (red):
For a bonus exercise, pick a passage from one of your favorite books and graph its sentence curve.
Gary Provost illustrated the value of varying sentence length with a brilliantly executed paragraph:
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.
See what he did there? If you graphed a sentence curve of his first nine sentences, the result would be a flat line. Five words each. That kind of writing has no heartbeat.
Then read the rest of Provost’s paragraph. By simply varying sentence length, he gave it life. Hear the pulse?
Don’t flatline your writing. Give it a heartbeat, a rhythm, a singing pulse. Make the sentences undulate, like verdant rolling hills or sea-blue waves or a dancer’s movements. Then watch your story dance—or hear it sing.
Monica Sharman is a home educator, freelance editor, and author of Behold the Beauty: An Invitation to Bible Reading, just released this week on Amazon. She invites you to connect with her via Twitter (@monicasharman), Facebook (Monica Sharman, Editor), Google+, or monicasharman.wordpress.com.
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