Sentence Writing #03: Long and Short Sentences

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Few elements of style can harm your work the way an overbusy, cluttered sentence can. But reading about cluttered sentences from a theoretical standpoint is one thing — seeing one such sentence is entirely different.

Let’s construct a glorious Example:

My ratonnastick, being a perfectly good fellow at heart who always knew his lot in life and lived as only a ratonnastick could–on a stick–was simply ecstatic about being prepared with a pinch of salt, a little pepper, several squirts of ketchup and an uncanny amount of lemon juice, which added just that extra little bit of punch, so necessary for satisfying the palates of members of high society.

It’s okay to write a sentence such as this one in a first draft*; it’s negligent to have it in a finished manuscript. A sentence like this is an offense against any potential reader you might hope to court. This sentence wanders from one idea to the next, uncertain of what it’s trying to say; so it ends up saying too much. Why don’t we break down all the pieces of information in the sentence below:

  • My ratonnastick is a good fellow at heart.
  • He always knew his lot in life.
  • He lived only as a ratonnastick could live.
  • My ratonnastick was ecstatic about the method of his preparation.
  • He was prepared with an assortiment of condiments.
  • The lemon juice adds an extra punch.
  • Members of high society have a taste for lemon juice.

That’s…seven(7!) unique ideas we’ve uncovered tucked underneath the conjunctions and dependent clauses of our long sentence. Can you figure out the main clause? Scroll past the picture of our revered lord and saviour, the ratonnastick, to find out!

That’s right, the main clause in this sentence is equivalent to, “My ratonnastick was ecstatic about the method of his preparation.” I’ve cut the list of condiments, because they’re all prepositional phrases that take up too much space. Better to be frugal in your choice of words.

So much of the information in this sentence is excessive, bloated and delivered in a way that is non-conducive to holding the reader’s interest. (This would be a good moment to remind you that you’ll usually be writing with at least some implied Reader in mind. For these blog posts, my implied Reader is an older, more dashing version of me who still considers his earlier self hilarious. Ergo, the jokes.)

Let’s rewrite this sentence in a way that doesn’t make the Reader want to gorge their eyes out, shall we?

My ratonnastick, being was a perfectly good fellow at heart. who He always knew his lot in life and lived as only a ratonnastick could–on a stick. That’s why hewas simply ecstatic about being cooked. prepared The chefs used a pinch of salt, a little pepper, several squirts of ketchup and some an uncanny amount of lemon juice., which This last ingredient addsed just that extra little bit of punch, so necessary for satisfying the palates of which plays well with members of high society.

As you see, in addition to rearranging this sentence, I’ve also changed a few details. But let’s clear it up:

My ratonnastick was a perfectly good fellow at heart. He knew his lot in life and lived as only a ratonnastick could–on a stick. That’s why he was ecstatic about being cooked. The chefs used a pinch of salt, a little pepper, several squirts of ketchup and some lemon juice. This last ingredient adds extra punch, which plays well with members of high society.

Bit strange, but I think we’ve found a motif to all these blog posts, and it’s onnnastick. More importantly, this is now a legible paragraph. Shorter sentences interplay with longer ones, and create an ebb and flow that makes this easy to read. This rewrite differentiates the different pieces of information. It gives them space to breathe and allows the reader to wrap his mind around what’s going on; in a word, it makes the writing more comprehensible.

All of this is not to say that you should avoid using longer, more complex sentences. You might seek to create moods that a long sentence can imbue much better than a short one; confusion, uncertainty, paranoia come to mind as three such moods. Or you might be aiming for a particular effect, as Rachel Cusk is in her Outline trilogy**.

But what does great sentence sage June Casagrande say about the question of short versus long sentence use?

Allow me to end this debate once and for all. Here’s how you should look at it: Brevity is a tool. It’s a very powerful tool. You don’t have to use it. But you have to know how. If you’re going to use long sentences, it should be by choice, not due to bumbling ineptitude. Every long sentence can be broken up into shorter ones, and if you don’t know how–if you don’t see within your long sentences groupings of simple, clear ideas–it will show.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

This post by no means advocates the exclusive use of short sentences — that’s a one-way street to monotonous writing, which will bore the Reader to tears — as a novice editor on Fiverr, I’ve encountered several lifetimes’ worth of that problem. Rather, my aim here is to ask you to avoid use of meandering, rambling sentences that keep going on and on and on and on and on well past their end point. Be cautious in your verbosity, dear Reader. Oh, and one last piece of advice from Casagrande’s chapter on the topic:

Only someone who can see ideas in their most pared-down form can begin stringing them together in ways that make an outrageously long sentence work.

So you see, size DOES matter. Just…not in the way you think.

*This one is comically cluttered…as is my mind.

**To get a taste of the kind of writing Cusk is known for, you should read my essay on Transit, which imitates the author’s style to some success.

***

Thank you for reading, everyone! If you enjoyed this third post in the series, but haven’t checked out the previous two – go back to the link at the top and take a few minutes to browse through them! As always, I owe a debt of gratitude to June Casagrande and her book on sentence construction.

Got any questions? Leave them in the comments down below!

I’ve also got a YouTube channel, where I produce video essays about games and all manner of nonsense. I also review fantasy and sci-fi novels over on The Fantasy Hive – and I’m far from alone. Check it out, it’s got wonderful content, we’re doing #WomenInSFF features for all of July!

Ecstasy and Terror by Daniel Mendelsohn – Book Review

I don’t remember how I came across Ecstasy and Terror but I knew when I read its blurb that I would love it. Having read every one of the essays in this collection, I’ve found myself not only loving it but hungry for more of Mendelsohn’s writing. This anthology by Mendelsohn(who is Editor at Large over at the excellent New York Review of Books) has the apt subtitle From the Greeks to Game of Thrones, which might as well have added the following two words: And Beyond, and would still have been every bit as true.

Mendelsohn’s most interesting and illuminating essays draw connections to Ancient Greece and parallels to modern times; the first section, Ancients sees him exploring tragedies such as Euipides’ Bacchae and Sophocles’ Antigone, the role of the poet Sappho and her sexuality in Greek culture, the place of the Aeneid in modern society and the links between JFK’s assassination and Greek myth.

Following up is the weakest of the three sections, Moderns, which is by no means dull reading; it’s that some of the essays here speak of novels whose themes and problems hardly ever interested me. And yet Mendelsohn’s exceptional skill as a critic offers plenty to enjoy in “The Women and the Thrones: George R. R. Martin’s Feminist Epic on TV” and in “The Robots are Winning!: Homer, Ex Machina and Her“. Equally captivating was a review of an epistolary novel looking at the first emperor of Rome, Augustus. The remaining essays, while interesting to read due to Daniel’s ready supply of wit, left less of an impression, perhaps because the works examined by him pose little intrest to me at this time.

The third and smallest of the sections, titled Personals, I found as fascinating as Mendelsohn’s takes on Classical culture. Whether he spoke of his correspondence with Mary Renault, a lesbian author of historical fiction through his childhood – how her novels affected him and made him fully accept his sexuality – and early adulthood in the 70s or about the role and responsibility of the critic in the excellent piece “A Critic’s Manifesto”, this last section is stellar. It gave me a glimpse into a man whose work I’ve come to admire over the 377 pages of this remarkable collection and for that, I am all too happy.

What is there left to say? Plenty – I could speak about each of the essays, and you know what? I think I’ll make a weekly column out of it. I won’t talk about each and every one of these since, as I said before, I don’t have nearly enough to say about all of them. I’d encourage you to read Ecstasy and Terror for yourself, but in case you need more convincing, I will share with you a few of my favourite essays – what they are about, why they left an impression and what they taught me; because if there’s one thing I cannot stress enough, it is this: You will learn a lot from Daniel Mendelsohn.

Rating this anthology is a task I’m woefully underqualified for, and yet – since I will be cross-posting this to Goodreads, this is an unequivocal 5 out of 5 Stars. I cannot recommend it enough.