A Long Sentence for the Ages
Thirty years ago next month, I began my work at the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times as a writing coach. Since then I have gathered and shared writing strategies with journalists, a body of work most recently expressed in the book "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer." (If you order the book on amazon.com, The Poynter Institute gets a piece of the action.)
In support of the book, Poynter is publishing a new version of Writing Tools: the Blog. It will be updated every Monday and Wednesday, with newsletters sent out the next morning. I won't always talk specifically about a writing tool, but every post will focus on becoming a better writer. The blog has several interesting and useful ways of getting your hands on the writing tools:
- More than half of the tools are now available in podcasts, with many more to come.
- You can find an updated version of "50 Writing Tools: Quick List" -- a summary of all 50 strategies at your fingertips.
- If you want to turn the Quick List into a handout, you can print it out via this PDF file.
- If you listen to "Writing Tools -- the Musical," you'll wonder why you haven't heard this on "American Idol."
As we continue to improve this blog, you can look forward to an increased level of interactivity among writers, and links to books on writing and other writing resources.
So settle in as I revisit Tool 7: "Fear not the long sentence."
As I lug my writing tools around the country, I find that one tool, over and over again, produces the most angst.
It turns out everyone is afraid of the long sentence. Fearful editors encourage writers to chop longer sentences into shorter bits. As a result, fearful writers worry that there is something wrong with going long.
Come on, writers. Get over it. You can do it. You just need a little help. (And are those sentences short enough fer ya?)
Take, for example, this long sentence I just discovered while reading Dave Eggers' new novel, "What Is The What." The sentence describes the scene of a young boy running like the wind through an African marketplace:
I fly past the smaller shops, past the men drinking wine on the benches, past the old men playing dominoes, past the restaurants and the Arabs selling clothes and rugs and shoes, past the twins my age, Ahok and Awach Ugieth, two very kind and hardworking girls carrying bundles of kindling on their heads, Hello, Hello, we say, and finally I step into the darkness of my father's stores, completely out of breath.
By my count, that sentence contains 73 words. The test of such length, of course, is comprehensibility. But not only do I understand it, I find it delightful -- even funny.
The author uses three strategies that make the sentence work:
- He lets form follow function. The action he describes has length and takes time. So he crafts a long sentence to render that experience.
- He places the subject and verb at the beginning in the first two words: "I fly." That makes the meaning, the anchor that prevents the sentence from drifting out of control.
- He saves a tidbit for the end: "out of breath," exactly the feeling you get if you try to read the sentence aloud.
So, please, please, please: Fear not the long sentence.
And send me some examples of long sentences that delight you.