Pros don’t worry about sentence variety

Which fork would you prefer to talk about at a party? Is it the same fork you would want to use when you’re in a hurry to eat your lunch? I hope you agree with me that the fork on the left is more interesting–hence a better candidate for conversation in a social setting–and the fork on the right is more mundane and functional.

Amateurs obsess about varying their sentence structure because their past readers (usually English teachers) struggled to be interested in their students’ documents. While the site does offer some good resources for professional writers, Purdue’s OWL (Online Writing Lab) includes an entire section on sentence variety.

Adding sentence variety to prose can give it life and rhythm. Too many sentences with the same structure and length can grow monotonous for readers.

No doubt this is to satisfy freshmen composition teachers. And you can’t really blame them for their boredom if they’ve read hundreds of papers on Wuthering Heights and the need for better campus parking over the years.  Teachers know more about the content of the students’ papers than the student writers. Plus, most English teachers prefer to teach literature and privilege literary style.

The problem with sentence variety brings us back to genre differences based on different rhetorical contexts yet AGAIN. Novels are supposed to be interesting. Readers should feel entertained or moved. Business letters are not supposed to be interesting. I’d argue that, if workplace readers feel entertained, that’s a sure sign the professional writer failed. Instead, readers should get what they need to do their jobs efficiently from the writer’s document and get on with their jobs. Efficiency and variety are mutually exclusive.

One of the tools for organizing sentences efficiently is cohesion. I’m updating my video tutorial on that topic now. Here’s a copy of the revised Letter to Suppliers  it refers to. It was adapted by me based on a sample from ForestEthics ( The document was written within the following context:

  • Writer: the owner of an office supply store
  • Readers: representatives of the store’s suppliers of wood-based products
  • Bottom line message: the suppliers need to provide information about the sources of their products

The document before being revised for cohesion is found here.

Interesting is good. But mundane has its place, too.

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  1. When it comes to “sentence variety,” the choice is not really between “interesting” and “mundane.” Rather, it’s between “clear” and “confusing.”

    Research done almost 40 years ago shows that repeating the same pattern in sentences actually enhances comprehension. In particular, if you think of sentences as divided into two parts, OLD information (info the reader already knows) and NEW information (info the reader does not), the OLD info always precedes the NEW. This pattern facilitates communication. Look at the paragraph formed by sentences (1-2) below.

    1. Most patients with heart disease are OVERWEIGHT. (old-NEW)
    2. EXTRA WEIGHT around the waist is an especially high risk factor. (OLD-new)

    By making the NEW info in (1) the OLD info in (2), the first sentence leads directly into the second. This pattern is easier to understand and is processed faster than an arrangement that violates this pattern.

    Now look at the paragraph formed by sentences (1) and (3) below. In (3) the order of OLD and NEW has been reversed.

    1. Most patients with heart disease are OVERWEIGHT. (old-NEW)
    3. An especially high risk factor is EXTRA WEIGHT around the waist. (new-OLD)

    This paragraph is less cohesive and takes longer to process because the NEW info in the first sentence does not lead into the second. Instead a third topic, “risk factors,” is introduced out of nowhere.

    For the orginal research on old and new information, see Haviland & Clark (1974). “What’s New? Acquiring New Information as a Process of Comprehension.” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13, 515-521.

    For a synopsis, see Parker & Riley’s Chapter on “Language Processing” in Linguistics for Non-Linguists (4th or 5th edition).

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