Keep It Short & Put the Good Shit at the End: Lessons in Writing Sentences

There is a lot of debate about what constitutes a good sentence. Enough debate to warrant entire books on the subject, such as Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One  (which prompts the question how the hell you could manage the former if you can’t comprehend the latter), and June Casagrande’s quaintly-titled: It was the best of sentences, it was the worst of sentences.

The problem with most manuals is that they are either mired in their own rhetoric (not every reader/writer is a grammarian, after all), or filled with subjective nonsense: here is a great sentence; it is great because it flows. 

This is especially maddening if you are trying to learn how to compose your own sentences. It’s all well and good for someone to tell you a sentence flows. But why the hell does it flow? And why do others not?

When I taught creative writing, lessons on writing sentences were a significant challenge. A classroom is inevitably filled with students of varying skill levels. My job was to craft lessons that could apply to writers on both ends of the spectrum: the novice and the more-than-competent.

Below are some of the ideas that students found most useful.

Keep It Short

Let me say it up front: there’s nothing wrong with a long sentence. I, for one, love a long sentence (at least when it’s well-composed). Many of my favorite writers, from John Irving to Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Jose Saramago are masters of the long, winding sentence.

But for most of us, shorter is better.

Not because we can’t write a longer sentence, but because shorter sentences are generally better at conveying information. My basic dictum when it comes to sentence composition is this: the longer the sentence, the more opportunity for error.

Consider this: the average person can read roughly 26 words in a single breath (go ahead, try it). Too far beyond that point, and the reader must suck in another breath before continuing. As it turns out, this is a fair measuring point of the maximum length of an average sentence. If your reader has to take multiple breaths to finish a single sentence, you’ve likely written something unwieldy.

I suggest keeping sentences below 20 words. Again, not because these are somehow better sentences, but because they are easier to manage.

One way to think of a sentence is like a room. A short sentence is a room with little in it. How does a sentence grow, after all? Almost always, a sentence grows because you have added clauses to it. Think of a clause as a piece of furniture. The longer the sentence, the more clauses, and thus the more furniture in the room. A long, winding sentence is similar to a cluttered room. Nothing wrong with a cluttered room, but it can be hard to navigate, yes?

Note: Keep that thought about clauses in mind for later. Generally, when we speak about sentences that are balanced, sentences that flow, what we are talking about are sentences in which the clauses are carefully, skillfully controlled.

king on writingAnother advantage of the shorter sentence is that, when it goes awry, it is easier to fix. Long sentences that go off-track can be tricky to diagnose. Often, this is because with a long sentence it is difficult to determine precisely what the writer is trying to say. Long sentences have a tendency to meander; sometimes into the wilderness.

In editing the work of my students, I found in nearly every case a long meandering sentence could be rectified by splitting it into two or more shorter sentences. Remember, a sentence is (usually) the conjunction of a noun and a verb. Once you’ve identified those, everything else is padding. As Stephen King notes in On Writing: “Plums deify” may be utterly meaningless but it is still technically a sentence. Noun and verb, baby. Noun and verb.

Put the Good Shit at the End

We tend to remember endings. The ends of novels. The ends of movies. The ends of relationships. Sentences are no different.

This fact is overlooked even by more competent writers, probably because it is most easily addressed in the revision stage, a part of the process even good writers often dread.

Consider the following sentence:

He shot George in the chest just after he walked through the bedroom door.

Not really a bad sentence. And maybe, within a larger context, there might be a reason to place the heart of the sentence (He shot George) at the beginning and the various clauses at the end. But if we look at just the sentence alone, it’s clear that we’ve front-loaded it: the good shit at the front and the less compelling information on its heels.

Compare:

Just after he walked through the bedroom door, he shot George in the chest.

It’s a simple shift, but the impact on the reader can be significant. By altering how we’ve structured the sentence, we create a kind of one-two punch. The beginning of the sentence sets up the reader–jab–and the end of the sentence knocks them on their ass–ka-plow!

Or if that’s too violent of a metaphor for you, think of it in terms of a joke. When someone tells a joke, it’s the punchline we recall best. This is why when you try to retell it later, the setup is usually fuzzy but the punchline is sharp and clear.

This works well with short sentences, but it can become critical in longer sentences and in paragraphs. Take a look at how Fitzgerald structures his clauses in the following sentence, marching out one after another like a stately parade, in order to set up the climax of the line (the ellipsis is Fitzgerald’s):

Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a revery of long days and nights; destined finally to go out into that dirty gray turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken…

He could have said: “Here is a new generation that believed all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in men shaken…” Which might have been more concise, but would have abandoned all the tension built up by stringing together those clauses.

this side of paradiseNotice too that within the sentence’s conclusion, Fitzgerald carefully crafted the order of his words.

He could have written: “…to find someone had killed all the Gods, fought all the wars, shaken all the faiths of man.”

Aside from lacking Fitzgerald’s elegance, that rewrite lays the emphasis on Gods, wars, and man. Rather than Fitzgerald’s tap-tap-tap of dead, fought, shaken.

Clarity

Critics are known for blathering on and on about how a writer’s sentences flow with rhythm, grace, balance, strength, majesty, blah blah blah. In some cases this may be true (although such criticism raises the question: what exactly is a graceful or majestic sentence?), but more often than not this type of hyperbole is employed merely to fill the required space a critic is paid to fill.

It also has the benefit of being utterly meaningless, which makes it easier to defend.

But if calling a sentence “beautiful” is meaningless–and thus unhelpful–what is a better way to evaluate sentences?

In my experience, the single best way to evaluate a sentence is whether or not a sentence is clear. At its most basic, what is the purpose of a sentence? To convey information.

A clear sentence conveys information well.

An unclear sentence conveys information poorly.

How do we tell the difference? Usually, if you read the sentence out loud and go huh? then you’ve got yourself an unclear sentence.

I know what you’re thinking. That by this measure every sentence would be short and simplistic, a dumbed down version of their smarter cousins. I disagree. Clarity is not the same thing as simplicity, just as complexity is not a sign of intelligence.

Consider the writer Jose Saramago. Saramago’s work is noteworthy for its distinct use (or lack thereof) of punctuation and standard formatting. A Saramago sentence can go on for pages, without periods or paragraph breaks (although he uses commas judiciously), including entire conversations between multiple characters that are never punctuated with quotation marks or broken out by breaks and indentations.

When asked why he writes this way, Saramago remarked: “If you write simply and clearly, you have no need for punctuation.” (I’m paraphrasing).

jose saramagoAnd he is right. Saramago’s works are read all over the world, beloved by millions who do not find his prose any more challenging than that of other writers.

Clarity is the result of clear thinking. This is, in my opinion, the reason that so much of what passes for great literature today is actually such muddled garbage. Modern writers (especially in America) are often praised for writing dense prose that is willfully obtuse. These sentences, when studied, are often found to have no meaning at all, or are so ignorant of the way in which the language works that they can hardly be considered literate.

If you do not know what you are trying to say, then you will likely write a sentence that is, at best, unclear, or, at worst, idiotic.

Don’t be idiotic.

Writing is not a race. Take the time to consider what you are trying to say. Then craft your sentences so that they convey clearly what you intend.

A good reference on this particular point is the work of B.R. Myers. His (very) short book  A Reader’s Manifesto is worth the time of every writer, but if you’d like a condensed version you can check out the essay that led to the book.

An Exercise in Understanding Why (Some) Sentences Work

The only way to really understand how to write better sentences is to read and write endlessly. Writing is like any skill. Practice and you will improve.

But a useful exercise along the way is to take various sentences from other writers and try to reorganize them. Change the order of the words, the order of the clauses. Don’t rewrite them wholesale.

By altering the structure of another writer’s sentences, you can reveal the choices the writer made during composition. It is critical to recognize that every sentence you read is the end result of a series of choices. The sentence could have been many other possible sentences, but the writer eliminated those other possibilities to give you the sentence you have on the page.

irving until i find youThis exercise can work with any sentence (at least in theory…I’m not sure what you’ll learn from Plums deify). Obviously, though, it is most revealing when working with the sentences of excellent writers. “Excellent” is a relative term, but the classics are a pretty safe bet. Dickens and Tolstoy and Hugo and Hemingway, etc. survive because their prose is effective.

But it’s your party, friend. Study who you want.

Here are a couple of my personal favorites which are telling when you try to reorder them:

In increments both measurable and not, our childhood is stolen from us — not always in one momentous event but often in a series of small robberies, which add up to the same loss.  —  John Irving, Until I Find You

The terror, which would not end for another 28 years — if it ever did end — began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.  —  Stephen King, IT

Some Books Worth Reading

As I noted earlier, there are a lot of books out there on this subject. Some are decent. Others aren’t really worth your time. There are three, however, that can help any writer, at least in my estimation.

several short sentencesSeveral Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg may be the best book on writing I’ve ever read. It’s style is completely unique, as is its philosophy. It is not a “grammar book” or a “style manual.” But it is a clear and forthright examination of what it means to be a writer at the most basic level.

Style by Joseph Williams is  a style manual, but one with much wit and intelligence. Imagine an expanded version of The Elements of Style, but with whole chapters dedicated to cohesion, coherence, concision and elegance. The subtitle, Toward Clarity and Grace, says it all.

style joseph williams

Finally, Grammar in the Classroom  by Mark Lester is, for anyone who loves breaking down sentences into their component parts, hands down the finest book about grammar and punctuation that I’ve read. Harder to find, and expensive to buy new (I lucked out and found mine at a Goodwill for a quarter), Lester’s book is easy to follow and packed with useful tools for constructing and deconstructing sentences.

Who writes the best sentences? What are some of your favorites? Tell me what you think in the comments section. 

Want to read more about books, movies, writing and television? Check outThe Black Cat Moan, the blog of award-winning writer Tyler Miller

And don’t miss my other writing posts: My Love Affair with Hookers: Great 1st Lines in Fiction and Go On, My Son: What I Learned About Writing Dialogue From Don Corleone

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