Writing Good Sentences

When I edit other people’s work I often find that a lot of their problems could be solved if they thought about their sentences a little more carefully. Usually, they have too many short sentences in a row. The effect is jarring. Staccato. Robotic. Intentionally dramatic. Unintentionally pretentious. Devoid of the natural rhythm of speech. I think this happens because all writers are encouraged to trim and streamline their writing, and it’s in this effort that writers lose their sense of rhythm. They see economic writing as the only goal and give up clarity and personality in an attempt to sound like their favourite economic writer.

A few years ago, when I was the quintessential serious young male writer, I idealised concise writers like Hemingway. So many writers go through their faux-Hemingway stage and some never come out the other side.  

In contrast, long sentences tend to sound a lot nicer than short sentences. This is perhaps because we usually speak in longer sentences, so something of the natural rhythm of speech is maintained. Long sentences also pull the reader along without making them stop for a period before moving on to the next description. Longer sentences make time go quickly and the prettiest ones have a waltzing rhythm with prosaic descriptions of rural settings with rolling hills and glens and mountains that overlook the fertile farmland below…

If you want some beautiful long sentences, then you should read anything by Kent Haruf. He was the master. Long sentences sound much more natural than short sentences, but they can be confusing if misused by writers who overuse sub clauses, which are the asides you get sometimes in sentences to explain something or elaborate on something in the main part of the sentence. See what I mean? Long sentences can be pretty confusing if a writer doesn’t keep all of the details in check.

The problem people sometimes have with longer sentences is that they forget to have sympathy for the reader, so they fill the sentence up with too much content and give very little thought to its order. A good test for any sentence – short or long – is to read it back and ask yourself if it could be made clearer. Ask yourself if there’s any chance that a reader may be confused. If you confuse your reader you lose your reader.

You can almost always clarify a difficult sentence by reordering it. Ask yourself if your sentences are confusing and then look for a way to clarify what you’re trying to say. If you’re stuck, you can always just use a shorter sentence. Short sentences tend to ground the reader. They allow the reader to catch their breath. They can also take the breath out of a reader with a particularly harsh revelation. Nothing punches the air out of a reader more than a short sentence telling them a character is dead, or some other harsh reality.

The best writing uses every length of sentence it needs to tell a story. The best writing doesn’t sell off its sense of rhythm and tone in exchange for concision. The best writing doesn’t have to choose between long and short sentences because it can use whatever sentences it needs to keep the reader’s attention. Here’s a scene from Kent Haruf’s Plainsong that illustrates how clear and compelling long sentences can be, and how powerful a short sentence can be. In the scene, two boys and their father are helping a cattle farmer with an unruly cow who has gotten stuck on a fence.

‘They gathered around, wanting to stop her, to quiet her, but she was kicking and thrashing in a crazy frenzy, and they couldn’t get close. Finally Guthrie climbed over to face her, to shove her back, to see if she’d come that way, but she had thrashed and kicked so much, rocking, teetering on the corral board, that she managed to tip herself forward, and suddenly she went over headfirst into the holding pen, making a heavy crashing somersault, her old angular head down, her hindquarters following, flopping over with a great thump onto the ground. Then she lay still.’

Do you see what works so well about this? There is something frenzied and unceasing about the long sentence that describes the cow’s movements. Then the short sentence on the end closes off the action with a tone of finality.  This excerpt shows how powerful varying sentence length can be. The best writing lightly moves from one sentence to the next and the reader moves with it. When writing works, neither the reader nor the writer is aware of when sentences begin and end. They just work, and it seems effortless. The trick is to disguise the effort.

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