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Posted, Oct. 6, 2004
Updated, Oct. 7, 2004


QuickLink: A72038

Writing Tool #26: Fear Not the Long Sentence
Do what you fear: Use long sentences.

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Fear Not the Long Sentence

Everyone fears the long sentence. Editors fear it. Readers fear it. Most of all, writers fear it. Even I fear it. Look. Another short one. Shorter. Fragments. Frags. Just letters. F…f…f…f. Can I write a sentence without words? Just punctuation?  …:!?

Melvin Mencher, the great journalism teacher, preaches the value of being counter-phobic. Do what you fear. So it is with the long sentence. Until the writer tries to master the long sentence, he or she is no writer at all. For while length makes a bad sentence worse, it can also make a good sentence better.

An example:

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My favorite Tom Wolfe essay from the early days of the New Journalism movement is titled "A Sunday Kind of Love," named after a romantic ballad of the period. The events described take place one morning in a New York subway station on a Thursday, not a Sunday. Wolfe sees and seizes a moment of youthful passion on the city underground to redefine urban romance.

Love! Attar of libido in the air!  It is 8:45 A.M. Thursday morning in the IRT subway station at 50th Street and Broadway and already two kids are hung up in a kind of herringbone weave of arms and legs, which proves, one has to admit, that love is not confined to Sunday in New York.

That's a fine beginning. Erotic fragments and exclamation points. The concave/convex connection of love captured in "herringbone weave," the quick movement from short sentence to long, as writer and reader dive from the top of the ladder of abstraction, from love and libido down to two kids making out, back up to variations on amour in the metropolis.

During rush hour, subway travelers learn the meaning of length. The length of the platform. The length of the wait. The length of the train. The length of the escalators and stairwells to ground level. The length of lines of hurried, grouchy, impatient commuters. Notice how Wolfe uses the length of his sentences to reflect that reality:

Still the odds!  All the faces come popping in clots out of the Seventh Avenue local, past the King Size Ice Cream machine, and the turnstiles start whacking away as if the world were breaking up on the reefs.  Four steps past the turnstiles everybody is already backed up haunch to paunch for the climb up the ramp and the stairs to the surface, a great funnel of flesh, wool, felt, leather, rubber and steaming alumicron, with the blood squeezing through everybody's old sclerotic arteries in hopped-up spurts from too much coffee and the effort of surfacing from the subway at the rush hour.  Yet there on the landing are a boy and a girl, both about eighteen, in one of those utter, My Sin, backbreaking embraces.

This is classic Wolfe, a world where 'sclerotic' serves as antonym for 'erotic,' where exclamation points sprout like wildflowers, where experience and status are defined by brand names. (My Sin was a perfume of the day.) But wait!  There's more!  As the couple canoodles, a cavalcade of commuters passes by:

All round them, ten, scores, it seems like hundreds, of faces and bodies are perspiring, trooping and bellying up the stairs with arterio-sclerotic grimaces past a showcase full of such novel items as Joy Buzzers, Squirting Nickels, Finger Rats, Scary Tarantulas and spoons with realistic dead flies on them, past Fred's barbershop, which is just off the landing and has glossy photographs of young men with the kind of baroque haircuts one can get in there, and up onto 50th Street into a madhouse of traffic and shops with weird lingerie and gray hair-dyeing displays in the windows, signs for free teacup readings and a pool-playing match between the Playboy Bunnies and Downey's Showgirls, and then everybody pounds on toward the Time-Life Building, the Brill Building or NBC.

The statement I am about to make may defy the cool reason required for a tool-maker's credibility, but has any reader ever experienced a more glorious long sentence, a more rollicking evocation of underground New York, a more dazzling 128 words from capital letter to period? Probably. But if you find it, I'd like to read it.

A close reading of Wolfe suggests some strategies to achieve mastery of the long sentence:

  • It helps if subject and verb of the main clause come early in the sentence. [Tool #1]
  • Use the long sentence to describe something long.  Let form follow function.
  • It helps if the long sentence is written in chronological order.
  • Use the long sentence in variation with short sentences and sentences of medium length.
  • Use the long sentence as a list or catalogue of products, names, images.
  • Long sentences need more editing than short ones.  Make every word count.  Even. In. A. Very. Long. Sentence.

Writing long sentences means going against the grain.  But isn't that what the best writers do?

In the 1940s Rudolf Flesch studied the effects that made a sentence "easy" or "hard" to read.  According to Flesch, an 1893 study of literature illuminated the shrinking English sentence: "The average Elizabethan written sentence ran to about 45 words; the Victorian sentence to 29; ours to 20 and less." Flesch used sentence length and syllable count as factors in his readability studies, a calculation once derided by E.B. White.  "Writing is an act of faith," wrote White, "not a trick of grammar."

The good writer must believe that a good sentence, short or long, will not be lost on the reader.  And although Flesch preached the value of the good 18-word sentence, he praised long sentences written by such masters as Joseph Conrad. So even for old Rudolf, a long sentence, well-crafted, was not a sin against the Flesch.


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Workbench:

1. With this tool in mind, keep an eye out, in literature and journalism, for well-crafted long sentences. Test these sentences in context, using the criteria above.

2. During revision, most journalists are inclined to take a longish sentence and break it up for clarity.  But writers also learn to combine sentences for good effect. Review some examples of your recent work. Try combining shorter sentences and see if the result is a richer variety of sentences structures and lengths.

3. The best long sentences flow from good research or reporting. Review Wolfe's sentences above.  Notice the details that come from direct observation and note-taking. The next time you are reporting in the field, look out for scenes or settings that might lend themselves to description in a long sentence.

4. Sentences can be divided into four structural categories: Simple (one clause); Complex (main clause plus dependent clauses); Compound (more than one main clause); Compound-Complex. Here's an important insight: A long sentence does not have to be compound or complex. It can be simple:  "A tornado ripped through St. Petersburg Friday, tearing roofs off dozens of houses, shattering glass windows of downtown businesses, uprooting palm trees near bayside parks, and leaving Clyde Howard cowering in his claw-footed bathtub." That 34-word sentence is a simple sentence with one main clause ("A tornado ripped…") Survey the contents of your purse, your wallet, or a favorite junk drawer. Try to write a long simple sentence describing what's inside.


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