Have you ever seen a 5-year-old trying to learn to ride a bicycle? The bike wobbles, the child shrieks and then suddenly takes off. But one false move—a lean in the wrong direction or a bit of over-enthusiastic pedaling—and whoosh, she’s off too fast down the street and veering into the bushes with a thump and tears.
What writers and beginning bike riders have in common
I often think of 5-year-olds on bicycles when I read long sentences. Such sentences often seem on the verge of careering out of control. Subordinate clauses jostle each other for attention. Problems of agreement crop up. And the darn verb—well, often it seems to disappear.
I frequently beg writers to avoid these problems by using short sentences. The optimum average length for a sentence appears to be about 14 words. But please note the key word average. This means that some sentences should be shorter, and others, of course, should be longer.
And it’s these longer sentences that will often give you the most trouble. Unless….unless… you know one simple but very effective trick:
It matters where you put your verbs