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I think I don't have problems establishing a rhythm in a "normal" paragraph. I usually just go: short, long, long, long, short, long or something like that.

But when it comes to lists, I always get confused.

Example:

For the first time today, she became aware of the familiar sights; the zelkova trees in front of the houses, the food stands on the pedestrian walkways, the farmer markets. The Okutama Mountains, and the Akigawa river, the latter flowing through the city like a sentinel guarding its habitants from outsiders.

So in the example above I have: long, long, short, short, very long. An honestly, I'm not sure whether it flows smoothly or not.

Are the elements of a list usually better off being more of less the same length? If I want length variation on them, what's the kind that flows better?

EDIT:

For the first time today, she became aware of the familiar sights; the zelkova trees in front of the houses, the food stands on the pedestrian walkways, the farmer markets on the side of the streets. The Okutama Mountains, resting quietly in the mist, and the Akigawa river—flowing through the city like a sentinel guarding its people from outsiders.

Does this flow better?

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I wonder if your list might work a little better if you slowed it down, and put in more detail. Also, that full stop in the middle makes the second sentence a fragment. A colon, not a semicolon, should introduce the list (you could use semicolons to separate items in the list if they get too long or require commas within them). Shouldn't it be 'that day', since you're writing in past tense? And 'its' in the last sentence is ambiguous: the city's people, or the river's? –  micapam Oct 12 '13 at 5:46

1 Answer 1

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Short to long. In general, lists flow better from short to long.

Emphasis. Another important consideration is what goes at the start of the list and what goes at the end. I often order a list so that the most important item goes at the end.

But this can cause a bit of a conflict. On one hand, the item at the end of the list tends to get more weight in the reader's mind. On the other hand, readers also give the longest item gets extra weight because it uses more words.

Hiding information. One final consideration: If you want to hide information in plain sight, put it toward the middle of a longer list. This can be useful in mysteries to obscure clues while "playing fair" with readers.

Patterns. In your example, the first two items set up a bit of a pattern: [some things] [in relation to] [some place]. So readers might expect the last item to fit the same pattern, and it doesn't.

Test it. Whenever I put a shorter item at the end, I like to read it aloud a few times to gauge the rhythms.

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Thanks! By last item you meant the last item in the sentence or the list? Will the piece flow better if I use the same pattern in the last sentence? –  Alexandro Chen Oct 11 '13 at 3:11
    
I meant the last item in the list. I'm puzzled about the second sentence. It seems like it might be a continuation of the list, but it also seems separate because it's a new sentence. I don't have advice for that, but it's somewhat awkward. –  Dale Emery Oct 11 '13 at 3:26
    
How about the edited version I added? –  Alexandro Chen Oct 11 '13 at 4:05

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