Shorter is always better. But shorter is even better in the company of longer.
“If you ever have a preposterous statement to make … say it in five words or less, because we’re always used to five-word sentences as being the gospel truth.” ~ Thomas Wolfe
Roy Peter Clark, who teaches writing at the Poynter Institute, uses that statement as a springboard for discussion of short sentences. They are powerful indeed.
Using short sentences to their full effect is a centuries-old strategy, found in opinion writing, fiction and nonfiction, poetry and plays. It works in a formal speech or in a handwritten letter. Shakespeare had a messenger deliver the news to Macbeth in six words: “The Queen, my lord, is dead,” a message that could fit easily inside a 140-character tweet.Clark shows this at work in a newspaper story. The writer described the life and influential tenure in a Tampa zoo of a chimpanzee named Herman.
A familiar and effective place for the short sentence is at the end of a long paragraph.
“Altogether, he lived at Lowry Park Zoo for 35 years. He lasted there longer than any other creature and longer than any of the humans. Each of the 1,800 animals at the zoo is assigned a number. His was 00001.”Placed in a short sentence at the end of a paragraph that telling detail assumes even more significance.
"What makes a short sentence short is determined by the sentences around it," Clark writes. "In the land of 40-word sentences, the 20-word sentence bears a special power."