The Perfect Sentence

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I recently edited a novel for a writer who was worried his sentences were too long.

They weren’t – he was just suffering from the usual insecurities, driving himself mad by questioning the nuts and bolts of everything – but it set me thinking. Sentences are never inherently ‘too long’ or ‘too short’: it all depends on the effect you’re trying to achieve. Sometimes you want short, punchy sentences. Sometimes you want long, elegant, flowing sentences, poetically accumulating adjectives and adverbs and perhaps, if the context calls for it, which it might, gathering up any number of sub-clauses and asides.

Speaking generally, it’s good to vary sentence length in your writing. A whole book written in short staccato sentences can be irritating and dull; a whole book of florid, longwinded sentences can be irritating, exhausting and dull. With practice, you can use sentence length and complexity to good effect.

Compare these two examples. Both describe the same incident.

I saw the man in the black hat. I followed him. He turned suddenly into the subway. I pursued him. I kept my distance. I didn’t want him to see me. Once he looked back. I looked away.

I saw the man in the black hat and followed him, pursuing him when he turned suddenly into the subway but keeping my distance, since I didn’t want him to see me; once, he looked back, and I looked away.

Neither of these is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – they just create different effects. In their own way, both create tension: in the first version, the short sentences stab tersely at the reader, while in the second, the long, flowing sentence carries the reader along. Both styles work, although a whole book in the first style might be too mannered, and a whole book in the second style might lack punch.

Play about with sentence length. Try writing in short sentences and in long, elaborate sentences; try using semi-colons, lists, sub-clauses (maybe even brackets), and think about the effects of different styles. Sentence length isn’t a science. It’s just another aspect of creative writing.

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