You probably know how cross I get when I hear of writers being told that they should stick to short sentences. I suspect it's sheer cowardice on the part of writers and teachers who haven't bothered to learn to control a long sentence, but it's also terribly stupid, because it deprives your writing of the energy and variety that you need if you're going to tell your story as effectively as possible: any writer worth their salt needs to be able to handle any kind of sentence. And it's doubly-terribly-stupid if you're ever trying to evoke other voices in narrative or dialogue, other times or other worlds. I entirely agree with writing teacher Barbara Baig, who says, "In their misguided equating of simplicity with power, such books do more harm than good". So I was delighted to know that Barbara has a new book out, about developing your sentence-wrangling skills, and I asked if she'd like to do a guest post for This Itch of Writing. And for more of my thoughts about long sentences, try some of these:
In Praise of the Long Sentence: my original rant argument discussion
The Right Words in the Right Order: how arranging the same elements differently makes a difference
A Million Little Versions: a demo of writerly yoga exploring just how many ways there are of arranging the elements
and now over to you, Barbara!
Pity the poor sentence! Two recent books (published in the U.S.) advocate writing only the shortest kind. Others give us a limited number of formulas to follow. There’s even a book that advises would-be writers to reject all adverbs and adjectives, and to look suspiciously at every noun. In their misguided equating of simplicity with power, such books do more harm than good, leaving aspiring writers with the idea that primer-style sentences and fragments are the only path to effective style. “Long sentences are boring,” such books tell us, “too complex, hard for readers to understand. Write lean.” Thousands of would-be writers have, alas, taken this advice, with the result that the paragraphs of many recently-published novels are made up of one short sentence after another:
We’re at a club downtown. It’s dark, hot, crowded, and insanely loud. Nicole is playing with her phone at the other end of the table. The rest of the girls are dancing by the DJ booth.
The truth is that any writer who seeks excellence needs to be able to write all kinds of sentences: long, short, mid-length; declarative, interrogative, exclamatory, imperative; right-branching, left-branching, mid-branching; and more. Sentences, along with word choice, create a writer’s style, his or her individual voice on the page. Sentences, wellconstructed, communicate clearly, making sure our readers see exactly what we want them to see, at the moment we want that picture to emerge. Sentences create drama, suspense, mood, forward movement. Most of all, sentences create rhythm, the music readers hear with their inner ear, music that, when composed well, keeps them turning pages. One short sentence after another can never do all these things.
There’s no escaping the reality that to write great sentences you have to have technique —a lot of it. Most of the writers I work with have good ideas or stories, but their repertoire of diction and sentence-construction techniques is extremely limited. As a result, they write the same kind of sentence over and over, because they don’t know how to write any others. They often love more complex sentences in the work of their favorite authors, but have no idea how to imitate them. They often imagine that, unlike their admired favorites, they have no talent.
But expertise in choosing words and arranging them into powerful sentences does not depend on innate talent. The repertoire of sentence-construction techniques in English is available to anyone who wants access to it, and mastery of those techniques can be acquired by anyone who’s willing to put time and energy into practicing them. A word, here, about practice: it’s not what you think. It’s not freewriting, or doing a writing prompt, or writing in your journal, or filling morning pages. The kind of practice that builds skills is different: it’s focused, intentional, repetitive, and hard work. Researchers in the scientific field of expertise studies, who study what makes certain people great at what they do, tell us that the kind of practice that builds skills is called “deliberate practice.”
Writers, in general, are not used to practicing; we’d rather get started on that next novel. But if we set aside a little time each day for practice, we could build our skills so that that next novel really would be better than the last one. That’s because practice, quite literally, changes our brains, creating new neural connections. What this means is that, with practice, our skills become more automatic, more a part of us, something we don’t have to think about as we draft and revise.
If we want to expand our repertoire of sentence-construction techniques, we can start with the basics: kernel sentences, the shortest ones available to us. John laughed. The dog barked. If you’d like to experiment with a practice, see how many of these sentences you can come up with, right now. As you do this, listen to the rhythm of the sentence: noun-verb, noun (or noun phrase)-verb (or verb phrase); you might also hear the rhythm as subject-predicate, subject-predicate. That duple rhythm is the foundation of every declarative (i.e. ordinary, descriptive) sentence in English, and it's varied by substituting a different kind of verb to suit the predicate (i.e. the verb and the rest of the main clause)
Joe is happy.
Mary is a nun.
Bob appears friendly.
The dog bit the mailman.
You can practice these four kinds of kernels, over and over, until their structure and rhythm is firmly embedded in your brain. "But why," you may be wondering, "should I bother?" For two main reasons.
First, one of the secrets of voice or style is mastery of prose rhythm, and one of the aspects of that rhythm (one among many) is variation in sentence length. While paragraphs full of short sentences invite tedium, kernels, used intentionally, can add punch, create emphasis, or change direction. For practice, write a short paragraph that begins with a kernel, one that ends with a kernel, one that uses a kernel in the middle for transition, or all three:
“Don’t do anything daft, sons,” said one of the uniforms. But they were just words. Nobody was listening. The two teenagers were against the rails now, only ten feet or so from the crashed car. Rebus walked slowly forward, pointing with his finger, making it clear to them that he was going to the car. The impact had caused the trunk to spring open an inch. Rebus carefully lifted it and looked inside.
There was nobody inside.
- Ian Rankin, Let It Bleed
Do this practice over days or weeks or months, and your mind will give you kernels any time you need them.
Second, the secret of composing effective longer sentences is to base them on kernels, strategically adding modifiers so that the kernel remains intact (or relatively so). There are many techniques for doing this; for instance:
1. Add information to the subject or the predicate:
Joe is a happy guy. (noun phrase is a happy guy instead of the adjective happy)
The large black dog bit the mailman on his ankle. (adjectives large, black added to noun dog, and prepositional phrase on his ankle used as an adverb modifying bit)
As a practice, take one or more of your kernels and add information to their subject or predicate or both. Try writing more kernels with added information. These additions are known as bound modifiers.
2. Add information before the subject, in between the subject and predicate, or after the predicate, creating what are known as free modifiers.
Although he sometimes gets depressed, Joe is generally a happy guy. (Subordinate clause added at the beginning)
The large black dog bit the mailman on his ankle, making him swear and drop his bag of letters. (phrase with -ing form of the verb making him... added at the end)
As a practice, see how many ways you can construct a sentence, adding information to kernels outside of the subject and predicate. This kind of practice is not mere drill; it’s an opportunity to experiment, to play around with each technique, getting a sense of its possibilities. Perhaps you want to try combining certain techniques; perhaps you want to stay with the basics until you’re sure your mind will provide them to you as you draft and revise; perhaps you want to focus on phrasing, or move on to other syntactical or rhetorical techniques. Perhaps you want to spend time imitating sentences from your favorite writers—one of the best ways to learn.
If you are a commercial writer, you may be thinking, I don’t write high literature; I don’t need to know this stuff. But great commercial writers do know this stuff:
Fiona, triumphant where all had looked lost, breathless and shiny-eyed, hurried ahead with Mackie to meet the returning warriors.
Can you identify the syntactical techniques used here by best-selling mystery writer Dick Francis?
The more techniques we have for sentence construction, the more options we have for getting our sentences just right—placing words we want to emphasize at the end of a sentence, for instance, or creating movement or suspense. And when we have mastered all the techniques available to us, then we can make our sentences do exactly what we want them to do: make things happen inside readers, and keep them turning pages.
Barbara Baig is a writer and veteran writing teacher. She is the author of two books from Writer’s Digest: How to Be a Writer: Building Your Creative Skills Through Practice and Play and the just-released Spellbinding Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Achieving Excellence and Captivating Readers. Barbara teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University (Cambridge, MA) and offers free writing lessons at WhereWritersLearn.com.