WHAT’S IN THE LENGTH of a sentence, paragraph or chapter?

To what extent do wannabee/established writers and authors pay attention to the physical construction of their story? Note the deliberate distinction between the use of the words ‘writers’ and ‘authors’ – if for no other reason than the description of the two has always puzzled me, and perhaps needs clarification before we go much further. Let me digress onto this dangerous ground for just a moment.

Our reliably handy friends at Wikipedia describe authors as “the originators of any written word” whilst a writer is defined as “a person who produces literature or non-fiction, such as novels.” Confused? Wikipedia go on to tell us that “the term writer is customarily used as a synonym of author, although the latter term has a somewhat broader meaning.” Ah, that really explains things!!

At its most basic interpretation you are an author if you ‘write’ fiction and a writer if you write non-fiction! Far be it from me to question Wikipedia, but are they seriously suggesting that a writer of fiction cannot be considered a writer? That’s just plain nonsense. I was once told that as a day-to-day working journalist, a frequent features man, and an occasional magazine contributor I could consider myself an “all-round writer” but that if I wrote a full-length novel I could consider myself an author. That piece of sageism was every bit as misleading as the definitions I’ve already covered. Because of what I have done, and am doing, I have the right to describe myself anyway I like – forget scribe, narrator or storyteller, I am a writer AND an author!

I would love to hear the views of all you writers and authors out there! What do you think you are?

But where was I? Oh, yes, I started out talking about sentence and paragraph construction. There are numerous pitfalls awaiting the unwary, and some thought should be given as to how your finished article actually looks. Just to add to the quandary of writers (and authors) there are no industry rules or guidelines. You’ve got to go with your own style, mindful only that you want the reader to stick with you as he/she navigate their way through the lines you have created across the page.

For my own part I don’t like a sentence that goes beyond 6 lines. No amount of grammatical intersections (commas, semi-colons etc.) will compensate for the fact that by the end of the sentence the average reader will need to draw breath, and probably not want to be put through much more of the same. There are exceptions, of course. It’s perfectly okay to have sentences in excess of 6 lines – just not every sentence (or even every fourth sentence). At the other end of the scale short, pithy sentences can be rather pleasant to encounter – provided they are not the norm for a book full of half-line or single-line offerings.

The same thought must be given to the length of paragraphs. If, for example, you push together two or three long-winded sentences into a paragraph you are in danger of taking up a complete page without the benefit of a break. The average paperback has 30-32 lines of text, compared to just 24 lines on a Kindle. I’ve seen too many Kindle books with paragraphs that fill the complete page, and then some. Not only does it not look right, it somehow doesn’t feel right.

I may be a writer and an author but I’m also a reader. When I come across a monstrosity such as I’ve just described, I invariably hit the ‘home’ button on Kindle and pick another book that will be less foreboding. Nowhere more than in books does the ‘quality-over-quantity’ adage most assuredly apply.

Beware going too far the other way! Unless you’re a James Patterson (and let’s face it, there’s really only one around!) stay away from 2 to 3 line paragraphs as a template for your style. It is one of the most difficult blueprints I can imagine.

When you progress from the length of sentences to the length of paragraphs, the next step is the length of chapters. I recently read a 360-page actioner that had just 8 (yes EIGHT) chapters. You do the math. For me, having to wait 35 pages for a break or a twist is really 27 pages too much. By now you’ll have guessed I’m an 8-page chapter kind of a guy. I can tolerate two pages either way, but beyond that I get a little frazzled. I dare say there are others like me.

Despite all I’ve said there is nothing to beat a little mix-and-match. The very nature of stories is that you need to have creative licence to drop in both long and short variations of sentences, paragraphs and chapters. However, do try to be a little consistent with your flow.

Whether you’re a writer, an author or a reader you’ll know instinctively what I’m saying. If not, your editor (and you should always have one, particularly if you’re self-publishing) is bound to tell you.

Whichever way you go I’d love to hear your views – and I don’t mind what lengths you go to!

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10 Responses to WHAT’S IN THE LENGTH of a sentence, paragraph or chapter?

  1. Brad Fleming says:

    “The moving finger writes . . .” The moving finger authors doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

  2. Susan Condon says:

    I’ve often wondered on the ‘Writer’ v ‘Author’ myself. I’d gone with ‘Writer’ and as I have not yet completed my first novel I’m going to save the change from ‘Writer’ to ‘Author’ until then – something to truly get me writing faster! Thanks for the tips on length of chapters – I read lots, especially thrillers, and do feel I tend to read faster with shorter chapters. It also keep the novel moving along faster and keeps it more interesting. Looking forward to reading more Joe and maybe a book about Mike Devon later in the year? I have a strong suspicion I’ll enjoy it . . .

    • joemccoubrey1 says:

      Susan, thanks for the comment. I have already TWO Mike Devon thrillers completed. The first is being released by Tri Destiny Publishing in March 2012 and the second in June 2012.

      • Susan Condon says:

        Just saw that through Twitter – will make sure to pick up a copy in March! :o)

        • joemccoubrey1 says:

          Thanks Susan – hope you like it.

          Joe McCoubrey Author Website: Click here Facebook: Click here Twitter: Click here Blog: Click here


  3. Brad Fleming says:

    This is an old one. Opinions vary – and so do the so-called experts. Take the word crowd for example. Most would say it is singular, but if so, is it correct to write ‘the crowd threw its hat in the air’? Surely no one would write ‘the crowd threw its hats in the air?’ Again, look at the word England. It’s a country and obviously singular – unless it’s used in a sports context. The British ‘heavies’, when covering the doings of the England cricket or football teams, usually, but not always, keep it singular – ‘England is Ahead’, or ‘England plays it cool.’ The tabloids go for the plural – ‘England are Diabolical’ or ‘England were Hopeless.’ You pay (pays) your money and make your choice. I go for whatever scans better and less pretentious.

  4. Kevin Taggart says:

    Hi Joe,interesting article.In your second paragraph you write [Quote] “Wikipedia go on to tell…….” [Unquote].Should you not have written “Wikipedia GOES on to tell”? Using the plural of GO should be used when writing about one company!

    • joemccoubrey1 says:

      Kevin – Wikipedia is an encyclopedia (Wikipedia’s description) which, acording to no less an authority than Wikipedia, is defined “as a book or set of books”. It is therefore correct to reference it in either the singular or plural!

      Joe McCoubrey Author Website: Click here Facebook: Click here Twitter: Click here Blog: Click here


  5. Brad Fleming says:

    Interesting piece Joe. I’m reminded of the skit by the late, great George Burns when asked for advice by an aspiring writer/author. Removing his cigar in that familiar way of his, he advised. “First, get a really gripping first sentence. Second, construct an even better last sentence. Third, get the two of them as close together as you can.”

    It was a joke of course, but there’s more than a grain of truth and common sense in it. When I was writing a news story, or even a feature article, for my newspaper I tried to do exactly that. I’d type up the first par, then move onto the concluding one. That done, the in-between but virtually wrote itself.

    Whenever possible, I used the same technique as a broadcaster, In news writing or factual reporting I tried to let the facts tell the story. Get the Who, What, When, Where and How of it across to the reader/listener as crisply, clearly and quickly as you can. A twist in the tail can be effective, but not every story lends itself to it.

    There’s no need for lots of adjectives, adverbs, or flowery phrases. Simply tell it like it is, as the man said. Many people know that the shortest sentence in the Bible is “Jesus wept.” He didn’t burst into tears and beat his breast. He simply cried. That’s impact. That’s great news reporting.
    That hasn’t changed in the 2000 odd years in between.

    Old Will Shakespeare could turn a neat phrase in his day, but would he ever have made it as a crime reporter on a daily tabloid, or as a front-line war correspondent on television? I think not.

    Feature writers, critics and reviewers can have more latitude, but hopefully not too much. They have to get their message across too, before the reader turns to something else, or simply falls asleep.

    Authors? Well, I think I’ll leave that one for another day. I’m not getting paid for this you know!
    Maybe I’ll write a book about it one day. Will that make me a writer, or an author?

    • joemccoubrey1 says:

      Brad – great stuff. I remember you telling me the George Burns story and I always wondered how much truth there is in what he said. The length of a story is the subject of my next Friday blog – I think I’ll use some of what you said to highlight a few points. Better still, I think I’ll get you to share the blog! Are you up for it?

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