Aside from working with Kentbury and writing blogs here, I have a few jobs: I babysit, I dog-sit, but my most time-consuming job is as a copywriter.
So, it's fair to say that I do my share of writing. And although there's some element of truth to "practice makes perfect," the fact is that by no means is my work perfect. Like anybody’s, it needs some editing before it hits the big screen.
But one thing that always stuck out to me from my editor’s critiques was “this part is too choppy.” Okay — I can basically guess what “choppy” means. It’s not flowing, it seems rushed, the ideas aren’t linked together. But that was just my vague assumption. Obviously, to better my writing, I had to understand what “choppy” was and how to avoid it.
According to Reference, “choppy writing” is defined as:
A choppy sentence is one that is short and simple, usually less than 10 words in length. Although they can be used to positive effect for emphasis, too many of them in succession tends to ruin the flow of writing. In academic writing in particular, choppy sentences should not be used more than three times in a row.
While it's true that choppy sentences can be used for emphasis, that's usually not going to flow if it's not your original intention. This also doesn't work in professional writing very well, whereas it's more welcomed in the creative, narrative realm of storytelling.
Let’s take a look at what else turns writing into a hot, chopped mess.
A run-on sentence is one or more independent clauses that aren’t attached by “and,” “but,” “or,” or punctuation — which is usually a semi-colon.
(Remember this rule, because ironically, too many semi-colons will turn your sentences very choppy. We’ll cover that next.)
The issue with run-ons is that they’re breathless. Think about it: when you’re reading a book, there’s a quiet voice in your head that feels like it’s “reading aloud.” You don’t want to feel rushed and like you lost the entire sentence because it, well, made little sense.
A good example of a run-on sentence: The cat saw the mouse in the kitchen and chased it through the living room and down the hallway and into the bedroom until finally the cat caught it and gave it to its owner as a present.
Fragments are the opposite of run-ons. They are sentences without an independent clause.
(They quite frankly don’t make any sense, whereas at least run-ons make a little sense.)
A good example of a fragmented sentence: That cat jumped. Landed. Very flexible, always lands on all four feet.
Does anyone else stay away from a semi-colon because they’re unsure if they’re actually using it the right way? No? Just me? Moving on.
Really though, semi-colons are commonly misused. Most of the time, they turn run-on sentences into fragmented sentences. Something to also keep in mind: as expected, your word choices are just as important as the varied semi-colon usage.
A good example of a dressy, semi-colon sentence: The cat looked out the window; watching as a bird flew by. It wondered when it could go outside; if that door would ever open.
Now that you know what classifies as choppy, how can you put an end to it? Spoiler alert: it will take conscious thinking at first, but eventually, it will come naturally.
Unchopping Your Choppy Sentences
The key is, rather than small, choppy sentences, be sure to construct ones that have some weight and depth. That doesn't always mean length — shorter sentences are certainly still effective! — but it has to stand out.
The good news is there’s a quick fix to overcoming your choppy sentences:
Add “and,” “or,” & “but"
Try to combine your shorter sentences into longer sentences linked by these conjunctions
If that doesn’t really flow, then add some clauses to start a new sentence while still clearly continuing your thought, such as “Since…” “Although…” “However…” and the like
The goal is to make your short, unrelated thoughts into longer companions. Think about that silent voice that does all the reading in your head. (Was that sentence a little choppy?)
In any case, if the sentence feels rushed or abrupt to you, it will to your readers, too.