Short sentences—the gold nuggets of writing

Writing short sentences and snappy, to-the-point paragraphs is not nearly as easy as it looks. As someone said, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” That wisdom has been attributed to everyone from 17th century French mathematician Blaise Pascal to 19th century American novelist Mark Twain to that titan of 20th century statesmanship Winston Churchill.

Still, it’s worth spending time to wash away the excess verbiage to find the gold nuggets in your writing. Because short sentences pack a memorable punch.

Ernest Hemingway reportedly wrote a “novel” in only six words: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” I’ve suggested the phrase “micro-story” to describe the kind of short sentence so rich in description that it evokes an emotion. Hillary Clinton’s convention speech contained one:

“Way too many dreams die in the parking lots of banks.”

You can feel it—can’t you?—the disappointment of an entrepreneur just denied funding for their dream. Data points generally exit our brains as quickly as they enter. But those dying dreams will stay with listeners a long while. Why?

As the Heath Brothers, Chip and Dan, remind us in their book Made to Stick:

“We are wired to feel things for people, not for abstractions.”

And you don’t need 10,000 words to create a feeling. Secretary Clinton did it with just 11. But that’s practically an epic in the world of short sentences.

How low can you go?

Wordcount-wise, I mean. How many words does it take to be memorable? I’ll offer you two examples.

First, this year’s winner of the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. British novelist Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton built a reputation—and a remarkable readership back in Victorian times—for stuffing his writing so full of words as to render it almost unreadable. My favorite entry this year is one of the runners-up, by Neal T. Godden:

“After his seventh shot of Jack Daniels, Billy reflected that only a certain kind of man, a Roman Catholic priest, born under the sign of Gemini, whose loved one had been run down by a bus full of inebriated Lazio supporters on a glorious Sunday morning in early April outside a provincial church whose bells were ringing Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in B minor, would truly be able to understand the abyss of despair in which he was drowning.”

That there’s a bunch of words. But what does it mean? You have to re-read it several times. Or maybe just skip to the last clause: Ah! The protagonist is unhappy.

Contrast with this:

“I think this may require therapy.”

That six-word gem comes from a blogger who goes by the name Alto. He’s created a feature called The Saturday Six, in which he posts a few six-word stories and invites his readers to add their own in the comments.

Next time you think more words equal more meaning, pay a visit to Mr. Bulwer-Lytton. And if you think you can’t say much without saying a lot, check out The Saturday Six. Short sentences create big impact.

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