Good morning everyone, hope the Wednesday you’re facing down the barrel of isn’t too terrible.
Like we do every Wednesday, let’s reach into the inbox and pull out a question about writing or publishing. Remember, if you have a question and want it answered, write me an email. Even if I don’t answer your question on the blog, I will write you back and answer your question. I promise.
Today’s question comes from Pete, who asks:
John, you’ve talked before about how important it is to vary your sentences. I get that, but what about grammar. How do you make that work? How long is too long? How many long sentences can I get away with? Should my action scenes have fewer long sentences because they’re supposed to be quick? What do I do?
Okay Pete, you’ve asked a lot of great questions. I want to start though not at the top of the list, but in the middle, if you’ll let me.
Whenever I see “can I get away with” when we’re talking writing, I think about the idea of something being transgressive, like we’re sneaking a file inside a cake or we’re telling the substitute teacher that we’re encouraged not to pay attention – that there are established rules and we have to keep our rule-breaking a secret, so that someone else doesn’t find out what we’re up to.
But there isn’t a “someone else” here Pete, unless you mean that you’re afraid of the collective “other people” judge you for writing a thing they’re reading … or are you saying that if you write too many long sentences people will give up on your book, that they’ve already paid for, and you’ll lose their potential future sales on other books you read?
Okay, Pete, that’s a pretty ambitious fear. First it assumes you’re going to get published (which you totally should pursue), then it assumes you’re going to publish multiple things (which you totally should do), then it assumes that your developed audience (something you should have) will abandon you at the first sign of a long sentence. That last part doesn’t speak too highly of how you think about this audience – that they will turn on you just as soon as praise you, and that’s not really accurate. It’s not over sentence length that an author loses the reader, it’s a combination of factors … but that discussion comes later. Right now, that manuscript isn’t finished, so let’s steer back on course.
You don’t abandon grammar entirely. You don’t abandon the sentence’s job of delivering ideas into the reader’s head. You do however experiment with how the sentence does its job. A fragment, although a no-no in some grammar contexts, can accurately convey information. Really. (see what just happened there?) Whereas a long sentence, full of clauses that twist and turn, carrying the reader towards a seemingly tremendous end can be a revelation as a break from short, punchy, almost yelling-at-you text.
I can expand on these ideas further with a sports analogy if you’ll indulge me. In hockey, for instance, players try to score goals while the opposing team’s defenders and goalie try and stop them. The player on offense has many ways to attempt to score points, so long as they hit the puck with a stick, and the puck goes into the net. They can do this with a slapshot, a wrist shot, a quick tap-in, a deflection, even an errant pass that takes a lucky turn or bounce.
Likewise, as a writer, you have many tools at your disposal to deliver your ideas (get your puck in the net). You can use long sentences (slap shots), short sentences (wrist shots), fragments (tap-ins), a variety of clauses (deflections and bouncing pucks). You are not without options, and each of those options has its roots in the principles of good grammar.
Recall too that “good” is not synonymous with “perfect” (or so my therapist reminds me), so grammar doesn’t have to be flawless to be accurate, understandable or enjoyed. The maxim in writing is: When you understand the rule, you can break the rule.
This supposes though that you know the rule. And “know” in this context refers to the ability to demonstrate following it. Write some really strong sentences, throw in a fragment and see what happens. In this way, the rules become guidelines, templates, and assumptions available for your use to educe your own voice and idea.
Sentence length is one tool for developing ideas. How many you use is going to vary, but overuse slows momentum, as the reader will take longer to get through the sentence, particularly when the word choice or punctuation make the lines dense and difficult to parse.
A different problem bubbles up when the long sentence is dialogue, as it can seem very jarring and almost monologue-y to have someone speaking in great paragraphs during a scene where perhaps long conversation does not make sense (the building is blowing up all around her, yet she wants to discourse about the state of the produce cartel.)
But there are cases when long sentences are useful. Establishing scenes, laying out detailed descriptions, anywhere you can take similar information and spread it out as a setup for things to come, all are fertile for longer sentences.
Of course, this means we’ve all agreed on how long “long” is. And there’s no answer to that. If we agree that long sentences have multiple clauses, then we have to try and come to a consensus on how many clauses we’re talking about. And if we pick a number like 4, are we saying that sentences with 3 dependent clauses aren’t long? It’s a rabbit hole of overthinking.
And Pete, that’s the heart of this issue. Overthinking the delivery system of ideas in order to ensure “the best success” is a great way to end up with a very weak delivery system at all, because everything ends up critiqued and examined and questioned rather than trusted and tested. (This is the same sort of argument I make when we talk about editing while you work.)
Long sentences are not some rare power held by a few while the rest of the writing peasantry has to make due with word scraps to get their ideas out. It’s just another tool in the toolbox, use it as you think you need to. And if you think you’re not using it correctly, ask for help. In time you’ll figure out what works best for you, and it’ll be better than some pat answer, because it will be tailored to you, which is ideal.
Thanks for your question Pete, it was a good one.
See you all later this week for more blogging goodness. Happy writing.