Tool #18 Set the Pace with Sentence Length

Updated: Jan 13

"Vary sentences to influence the reader's speed." -Roy Peter Clark

Last week's post was all about coming up with new ways to say old things. This type of thinking is called "riffs on language." Roy Peter Clark, in his book Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, describes the technique like this: think of the jazz artist who plays a note. Then another jazz artist creates a riff-based on that previous note. Eventually, a song is born. Or in our case, new words and phrases are hatched. If your marketing strategy needs a makeover, you may want to employ this technique.

Going the Distance⁠—or not⁠—with Sentence Length

But let's say you are looking for something more than just a word or phrase to get the attention of your target audience. Most bloggers and content writers will agree: stale writing causes bounce rates to go up. But wait. I have a cure. Following Clark's advice, we can set the pace of our sentence length to "create the music, the rhythm of the story." After all, any good writer tries to create what Donald Miller calls "a story brand." You can capture the essence of anything through sentence length. Let me explain. 

You have a product. You want people to buy it. Simple enough.

Does your product make people want to go on a ski trip through the blistery alps to find themselves more refreshed and relaxed once they've used it? Or do you want them to feel a more edgy effect?

A quick drip-drop! Enjoy a snowy slope!

Either way, metaphors aside, you can affect your reader's engagement by varying sentence length. Depending on your product, choose your target audience's adventure. What is he or she seeking? Tell a story that is memorable enough by how you tell it. And then sell it.

Sentence Length Samples

If you are looking for some good reads on how to apply this technique to your content, check out the following suggestions by Roy Peter Clark:

Read "The Death of Benny Paret" by Norman Mailer. As Clark explains it, "All that drama. All that raw emotional power. All those short sentences."

Also, check out the book, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost. He created a "tour de force" to illustrate what it looks like to experiment with sentence length:


Clark, R. P. (2008). Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. Columbus, GA: Little, Brown.

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