One of the things we’ve heard from and told to writers is that you should look to vary your sentence length and structure. Ask them why, however, and you’re liable to get a range of answers that all kind of circle around the same insight: Because that’s how you create voice. Because that’s how people speak. Because that’s how you keep your writing interesting (or synonym). Because that’s all you create rhythm and diction.
I pretty much agree without qualification that this is the main advantage of varying sentence structure and length. But it’s not like that’s the end-all, be-all, say-all of the matter. There are any number of secondary effects and granular advantages when it comes to varying your sentence length and just being mindful of your sentence structure altogether. And it’s these second-order effects that I want to explore for a moment or two.
- Switching tones without switching voices. For example, you lay out a bunch of information all at once in a long sentence packed dense with data and insights, and you need the reader to hang on for just another moment for the payoff. Then, boom! A short expressive interjection can signal the switch has occurred.
- Varied sentence length, especially a series of short sentences following a longer one, is also a promise to the reader that you won’t do this to them all the time. It’s okay. You can exhale. Catch your breath. Let your attention reset.
- In order to vary sentence structure effectively, you have to be to know how to use punctuation. This includes audience-mindful uses of semicolons and dashes, but it also includes wielding more modern-day media like online blogs and their incessant use of bullet points.
Knowing When to Break the Rules
Within a much longer piece, the occasional paragraph or even an extended passage may be full of sentences with the same structure. These more monotone moments can themselves be a break and contrast to the otherwise voice-driven composition. There may also be intentional, content-based reasons for this writing choice.
Furthermore, the audience and type of writing may itself go against this grain. In certain kinds of scientific, technical, or lingo-driven writing—where efficiency of communication is a priority and the audience brings with them a huge amount of prior knowledge and interest—then varying sentence structure may not be a concern.