When 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:
- The writer needs to learn how to write good long sentences
- The writer should stick to short and snappy
- 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.