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The Best Lesson in Pacing...EVER

From Pulitzer-Prize winner, Rick Bragg

Writers set the pace for readers

Even in a modern world, good writing isn’t always a rush to the finish. There’s got to be a warm-up, an acceleration, a burst, a finish, and a cool-down in order to win. Any writer worth her salt — or her pay-per-project rate — understands that.

Writers know about pacing. Copywriters, in particular, understand the need for brevity. We learn that most people don’t fully read our work; they scan it, taking in information through the headings, bold print, and offset quotes. To compensate for that tendency, we cut to the chase and condense everything. We craft hard-punching, attention-getting headlines to set readers off with a bang.

We’ve learned to move people along with white space, (counter-intuitive since the act of writing is to put words on the page, not create white space,) and to avoid long, complex sentences like the plague. ‘Heaven Forbid’ if we have dense paragraphs or sentences with more than a hundred words and several dependent clauses — as F. Scott Fitzgerald or Edgar Alan Poe did.

The long and the short of it is this: Writers have to know how to set a winning pace for their readers by using both long, detailed paragraphs AND short, punchy phrases. It’s not all one or the other. A combination of styles helps readers build momentum without pushing them too hard. Variety in sentence structure and paragraph length urges readers to the finish line where they gasp in victory, “YES! I GET IT!”

Short and emphatic must be balanced with long and lush

Many bloggers advocate for frequent one-sentence paragraphs. Those one-sentence paragraphs create more white space, encouraging the speed-browsing done by most readers. Brief, simple sentences make content easy to read and absorb. But the caveat to that rule is that you have to counter-balance the emphatic, short gut-punches of words with longer elements of language. It’s that very contrast that sets up the power of the quick blow.

Short sentences and brief paragraphs insert URGENCY into a message, an emotional element that’s essential to getting a click-through. It’s like inserting an isolated staccato note in the middle of a clamoring symphony. Done once or twice, the music makes a statement with a single, discernable, solitary note. Done frequently, that technique loses its impact. The music sounds disjointed, not accentuated.

How do you keep your readers moving without pelting them with short, pithy hail-balls of words?

Know that too much of anything is too much. Too many short sentences. Too many short paragraphs don’t work. Neither does having too many complex sentences and too many long paragraphs. You may have heard that “Variety is the spice of life,” but do you think about variety as an essential ingredient in effective pacing?

The longer the language, the slower the pace

A slower pace isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Longer sentences and detailed paragraphs allow you to develop ideas and warm the reader up. You can give personal anecdotes, explain terms, or provide descriptions. You can add to the “story” with sales figures or product features to help them hit their stride. You can present details about characters, historical background, or interesting theories to get them up to speed.

Once you get their blood pumping, then you can urge them on, developing speed and urgency in the race to finish.

The shorter the language, the quicker the pace and the more dramatic the emotional impact

Short sentences and one-sentence paragraphs are excellent writing tools to speed up the action. Brevity increases the chance that someone scanning the page gets the main points undistracted as they are by extra words and black text. Not only does short language keep the reader moving, but it hits them hard. Words pack an emotional wallop when the reader runs head-on into them. But not every sentence can be emphatic. Not every paragraph should be a one-sentence-kick-in-the-butt or the reader will feel like a punching bag.

Finding the balance between long and short is the ultimate goal of skilled writing. The trick is to slow the pace enough that the reader can savor the details while whetting their desire to keep reading. Yes, shorter text can propel them forward when they’re starting to lag. A little more white space at the end might push them to the finish line, but it is the contrast between long strides and short bursts of language that demonstrate effective pacing.

For excellent pacing, pay attention to the length of your paragraphs as well as the length and complexity of your sentences. Remember that variety is an essential tool in moving your reader forward.

Specific strategies to check your pacing:

Once your draft is written, go back and

  • Count the words in each of your first ten sentences. Write those ten numbers on a list.

  • If all your sentences are about the same length — no matter what that length is — you know you need to modify some. Combine two sentences. Shorten some. Use a semi-colon occasionally. (In case you’ve forgotten, a semicolon connects two related, independent clauses: “I have to take a shower; I have a big date tonight.” / “I failed my test; my parents are going to kill me.) Make sure that all your sentences don’t have the exact same rhythm.

  • Choose words carefully. Don’t repeat words — with the exception of common articles and linking verbs — in the same paragraph unless it sounds awkward to use a synonym.

  • Unless you’re aiming for a rapid-fire approach or are using a technique called “repetitive emphasis,” don’t have multiple short sentences in a row. Don’t start every sentence with the same word.

  • We all remember the subject-verb exercise from grammar school. (There’s a reason they called it “grammar school,” after all.) Go back and highlight the subject of each sentence and the verb of each sentence. Are all your subjects and verbs at the beginning of each sentence? Looking at the pattern of your sentences, can you see that most of your sentences are built in the same way?

  • If your sentences are basically the same over and over, re-work them. Add a clause at the beginning of your phrase so that the subject and verb come later. Can a sentence be made into a question? Have you joined sentences into a compound sentence by using where you’ve connected two complete sentences with a conjunction: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so? Make sure all your longer sentences aren’t compound made of two simple sentences. Provide variety in the style and cadence of each sentence to keep readers from being bored.

  • Look at the number of sentences in each paragraph. Are your paragraphs varied? Fully developed? If you have a one-sentence paragraph, have you created it with specific intent?

The best example of pacing, ever, comes from Rick Bragg

If you don’t know Rick Bragg’s work, check it out. A Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist, he’s authored eight books, most notably All Over But the Shoutin’ and Ava’s Man. Ava’s Man is the story of Charlie Bundrum, the hard-living grandfather that Bragg never knew. It was this non-fiction book, Ava’s Man, that emphatically demonstrated the power of pacing to me.

Most of the chapters were five or six pages of small-print pages, filled with vivid descriptions, memorable characters, and dynamite story-telling. I was entranced by the prose and the story-line, utterly absorbed. Then he skillfully developed an emotional wallop, demonstrating the dramatic impact one short paragraph could have when placed, concise and isolated, between pages densely populated with other words.

Bragg’s rich, descriptive prose comes to a heel-skidding, rubber-burning-sole-smoking halt with this one-paragraph chapter:

White’s gap, Alabama, 1951:
“It is not a family that will talk for long about sadness, and on some days, sadness is all there is. James’s two smallest babies died when his and Phine’s house burned that year, while he was at work and she was at the neighbor’s home. Mary and Jeanette, the two oldest girls, crawled out a window, but a boy baby, James Junior, and a girl baby, Shirley died in the black smoke. ‘It was the worst thing that ever happened to us, said Margaret. That is the most anybody said about it in fifty years, and about all there is to say now.”

Now that’s a powerful emotional punch, emphatically delivered by brevity and its contrast to longer sections of prose.

I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of books in my lifetime, but this is the best lesson in pacing, EVER.

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