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Are you a famous writer? If no, read on…

April 27, 2011

Once you become a feted novelist, you can do whatever you like.

You can open your novel with sentences that run for a half a page, like William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom.*

Or you can take the English language and twist it out of all reasonable order for your poetic purposes – a la James Joyce.

And if you are Charlotte Bronte, you can write long, rhythmic, emotionally charged sentences that go on for a paragraph.

If you’re not a famous novelist, however, please show some restraint. Please keep your sentences clear and short. Please don’t load them up with multiple ideas; if you do, avail yourself of a semi-colon or two.

Just as people find it easy to lapse into jargon, they also find it easy to write long and tortured sentences. (Journalists are among the worst, but I give them a special dispensation: the first paragraph of a news article  should consist of one sentence that tells most of the story.)

For the rest of us, short sentences are much better. Their brevity gives them a declaratory power. Simplicity makes them easy to understand. Their cadence appeal to the senses. In short, shortness rocks.

Conversely, long and tortured sentences suck. I see them all the time in a range of communication materials – emails, releases, articles. You name it, somewhere in the world, there’s a long and wordy sentence to describe it.

The PR industry is one of the worst offenders. In fact, I wanted to provide an example of a painfully cluttered sentence, so I logged onto PR Newswire. Excuse the cliché, but it was like shooting fish in a barrel. Within seconds I found gems like this:

“Verizon has successfully completed the annual SAS 70 Type II examination of its data centers, which support the company’s broad portfolio of cloud-based computing services and underpin its “everything-as-a-service” cloud-based information-technology delivery model.”

This is by no means the longest sentence around, but compounded by the awful techno-speak, I think it makes my point.

Now, we don’t want to get hung up on rules and strictures about length. However, it’s worth reviewing your own work now and again to ask the following questions:

  • Does my sentence go for an entire paragraph?
  • Do I forget what the first part of the sentence means, by the time I get to the end of it?
  • Am I trying to cram more than one thought or message into that sentence?
  • If I read this sentence aloud, do I need to draw breath several times?

If you answer yes to any of these, it’s time to see your doctor.

Well, not really. But it is time wield your scalpel. See if you can cut the sentence into smaller parts. Consider whether the judicious use of commas, colons or dashes would improve it. Think about how you can simplify the expression.

And if all else fails, write whatever you like, and tell them you’re the next Jack Kerouac.

*I never got past the first chapter of Absalom, Absalom. And despite my literature degree, I have to confess, I have never read Ulysses. There, I’ve said it.

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4 Comments
  1. Good one B, the problem is kids are encoraged to ‘express themselves’ before mastering the structure of writing.

    Bring back latin I say.

  2. Belinda permalink

    I agree. A good declension would solve a lot of problems for the youth of today 🙂

  3. What if you aren’t Charlotte Bronte and you still want a rhythm that’s not pizzicato? When can you take licence?

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  1. That’s a sales pitch, not a news story « Getting Past PR

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