August 13, 2010

Sentence Lengths

I am currently reading Charles Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit and recently finished Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Juxtaposed to their trailing sentences, I have recently read several authors and teachers of today who advise making sure that sentences do not exceed so many words or so many lines on a Microsoft Word page. Now, I think it's pretty obvious that the days of Austen's mile-long sentences, speckled with an ellipses here, a semicolon there, and several dashes all over, are long gone; readers do not like having to stop and catch their breath all the time. But dictating the "proper" length of all sentences and cutting one's structure to fit that is not the answer, either.

Strunk and White's Elements of Style advises against these sorts of cookie-cutter sentences and call them 'singsong' and 'mechanical' in their symmetry. A full paragraph of simple sentences is monotonous for the reader and tends to lead their mind (my mind, at least!) to the poor quality of the writing, rather than the point the author was attempting to make. Thus, Strunk and White advise this:

"If the writer finds that he has written a series of loose sentences, he should recast enough of them to remove the monotony, replacing them with simple sentences, by sentences of two clauses joined by a semicolon, by periodic sentences of two clauses, by sentences (loose or periodic) of three clauses - whichever best represent the real relations of the thought." (The Elements of Style, Principles of Composition #18)

In other words, vary the length and structure of your sentences.

Now, there is a place for several brief sentences, especially in expressing sarcasm, the tenseness of a moment, or something of the kind. But we have to make sure that our brevity counts for something in the scene, so we should not go wild with chopping all of our sentences into "bite sized chunks." Keep it reasonable - there is no need to go Jane Austen and run a single sentence out for half a page - but not repetitive.

2 comments:

  1. Great advice. I tend to go long with my sentences as well, although I've recently been trying to curb that habit when I can. Thanks for the post!

    ReplyDelete
  2. You're welcome! I try to vary the lengths of my sentences, but I find it helpful to reread what I've written to make sure that it's neither too choppy, nor too long and drawn out. Thanks for commenting!

    ReplyDelete

 
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I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
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Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
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Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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