So, I figured it’s about time I got back to being a useful blogger that discusses something or someone other than myself.
And why not start with a “what’s the right length?” kind of question. This time with respect to sentences. (Of course, the sexist yet true answer that I learned in 7th grade English still applies here – like a woman’s skirt, short enough to keep it interesting, but long enough to cover the subject. Or in this case, serve its purpose.)
I’ve been thinking about this for two reasons. First, it came up at the writing workshop because one of my fellow participants has a writing style that tends towards shorter sentences.
Which can work.
But not if all you use are short sentences.
After I returned from the workshop, I ran across this great post by Tobias Buckell: This sentence has five words. Here are five more…
The post is a perfect way of showing (not telling–haha) what happens when you overuse any sentence construction. You can feel that something isn’t right after a few sentences. In this case, those sentences were written to tell you exactly what’s wrong, but even if they weren’t, you’d still feel it.
So, there’s that.
But then I also read a very good writing advice book recently: Several short sentences about writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg.
(I’d never heard it recommended, but I saw it at the book store and had a book by Klinkenborg on my fiction to-be-read list, so decided to give it a try.)
I don’t buy into everything the book says, but there was enough in there for me to really like it.
And one of the main arguments in the book is that you should write shorter sentences. Eliminate the extraneous and figure out what you actually said rather than continuing to assume that you’ve said what you intended to say.
(Follow me? No? Read the book. He uses much shorter sentences than I do to explain the concept and does so with far more skill.)
I also like the book because it advocates what I consider some golden rules.
1. If a rule doesn’t work for you, don’t follow it.
2. Genre is what’s used to market books, but shouldn’t be used to write them.
3. If you want to be a good writer, you have to read.
I have a ton of good quotes from the book, but I’ll share this one:
“We forget something fundamental as we read: Every sentence could have been otherwise but isn’t.”
I think this is so true and one of the reasons beta reader comments can’t take you all that far from where you started. I think I’ve discussed this before, but I edit or comment on reports a lot for work and a lot of times I find myself stuck with the decisions made by the original author.
Because you never really want to say–great concept, now open your word processor to a blank page and start again. So, instead you make comments like, “I think you need to clarify how section 4 ties into the first three sections” or “I’m not sure I believe that Ann would do what you have her do in Chapter 20.”
I’m probably one of the most obnoxious, intrusive beta readers/critiquers I know and I’ve never told someone to start over. (I have, on projects that were mine, rewritten an entire report where someone else wrote the first draft. But I’ve never tried having that person rewrite the report. It’s too stuck in cement at that point. They can’t move away from the approach they chose initially.)
So, back to the title of this post. Short sentences can be powerful. They can be clean, they can influence pacing, they can, as Klinkenborg says, allow you to imply more than a long sentence. But too much of anything, including a short sentence, can ruin the flow of the story.
(Klinkenborg also makes the point that “every sentence influences every other sentence.” So, when you change one sentence always read the sentences around it. I often find that one wording change in the first sentence of a paragraph can influence sentences throughout the rest of the page. It’s a carry-through effect. All about keeping the right rhythm, flow, word choice, etc.)