How To Write Long Sentences

keyboardWhen I first started writing on the Internet I owed a lot to Poynter Institutes’s 50 Tools That Can Improve Your Writing guide. The whole list was sadly taken down from the web to be sold as a book so I do suppose it’s lost forever, unless someone can figure out how to view the cached versions of the site. But back to the topic at hand: The Long Sentence. One of the first lessons I learnt from the Poynter guide was how to get long sentences right – how not to write one, how they work, and how to keep meaning clear even if your sentence is a paragraph long. Let’s start by comparing two long sentences:

A career that is spent primarily in the back office for troubleshooting for the benefit of the department can be detrimental to your advancement.

And this gem by Dave Eggers,

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.

Now the second example is a lot longer than the first, and yet it just seems to work. Why does it work? Why does it flow logically and not collapse inward?

Simple. It branches to the right. Branching to the right is a very important part of a good long sentence, and it is very easy to pull off – all you have to do is to put the subject and the verb as early on in the sentence as possible. It acts as an anchor and prevents the sentence from drifting out of control.

In the second sentence ‘I’ and ‘fly’ are placed at the start, and the rest of the sentence branches out from it. It prevents the sentence from spiraling out of control. In the first sentence, however, a whole chunk of text is placed between ‘career’ (the subject) and ‘can be’ (the verb). Result? An unreadable sentence.

Keeping a strong subject and verb together is a simple rule that should be applied to all forms of sentences when you’re writing to be clear. It helps give shape and direction to your text, particularly if it’s placed at the very front. But putting the verb at the end isn’t a completely evil thing to do – writers do it all the time when they’re trying to create suspense, or when they’re building tension for the reader. This works if it’s done well. Just use it carefully.

There’s one last aspect to the long sentence that I must include before I close: you might not need to write long. I believe that there are three possible remedies when a writer frequently loses you with the long sentence:

  1. The writer needs to learn how to write good long sentences
  2. The writer should stick to short and snappy
  3. The writer should stop squeezing in every imaginable detail into his/her prose

And the third is more often than not the problem. Know when to stop with your details. And fear not the long sentence.

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Category: Learning To Write
  • http://www.themutantstory.com Sonja Nitschke

    I like Dave Eggers’ long sentence because I feel out of breath along with the narrator. Just makes me feel more closer to him.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Oh yes, Sonja. I like it too. =)

  • jeremy rosenthal

    Thanks for the help, my teacher asked us to write a 100+ word sentence, so I’m really glad you gave the great advice on how to keep it coherent (putting subject and verb at the beginning and branching to the right).
    Sorry to do this, but two little things I noticed that I think could be fixed:
    1)”so I do supposed” could be “so I do suppose”
    2)”a whole chuck of text” could be “a whole chunk of text” (a chuck as a noun is a light tap.)

    Again, thanks for the help and for keeping your lesson concise!

  • http://andrefischer.ch André Fischer

    Your point, excellently, praiseworthily made as it is, is, after many other posts and thought-provoking articles I have taken the time (of which I sadly don’t have as much as I would like) to read, the one that has prompted me to sit back and, hands aflutter over the keyboard, attempt to construct an apposite, possibly worthy, and hopefully humorous (though what exactly “humour” is varies so much from individual to individual) response.

    In short: bravo!

  • http://andrefischer.ch André Fischer

    And I just noticed the first sentence above is missing an “is”…

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Thanks for the kind words, Andre. =) Much appreciated.

    PS: I’m a bit busy at the moment, but trust me when I say I’m not happy with some of the articles I’ve written in the past. I need to re-edit once I get back from my studybreak.

    @Jeremy: good catch, thanks.

  • SAMAR

    My english writhing so lazy and poor i still write a english as a ten years child write so plz give see me way of good writing and we can’t forget till my life i alway grip in subject, object, noun, pronous and others gramer but when ever i write hindi we can not thiks little more to write so I hope you will be help me.

  • SAMAR

    i don’t know because till date i not take your serveice

  • Ismail

    Thanks alot for the information. I sat for many exams and, unfourtunately, I failed because I used lot of short sentences. A friend told me that long sentences are so much important in compositions. Is that true?!

  • Hfgdklj

    Yes I’m very good at all verbs and etc…
    And now I’m in Area 52 to write top secret stuff now.
    JJL.

  • Kjdfhshfd

     Just.Joking.Lol

  • Hfgdklj

    Its still me

  • Hfgdklj

    in the middel

  • Hfgdklj

    Got you guys!!
     

  • Jenniferlazarow

    Writting is so hard for me now