Our world is full of useful guidelines on how to write for the web. Sensible, everyday guidelines. But, over time, we morph those guidelines into laws. Unbreakable rules that spoil the fun. Sour the adventure.
Take writing short sentences, for instance.
It’s a useful guideline. Full of benefits. Meant to be inviting. Easy on the eyes. Breezy for the brain. Certainly the short sentence is a boon in this mean, cold world. Where a busy reader is likely to give your humdinger of a headline a once-over, your first line a second glance, then disappear.
But the short sentence can become boring. Breathtakingly boring. It can become repetitive. Monotonous. Monotone. Routine. And dry. Which frustrates the reader.
See, there comes a moment in every article or sales letter where all that tension building up behind those cute, compact, and simple sentences (you know, those one-subject, one-verb constructions, with an occasional direct object thrown in if the writer is feeling frisky) must be released.
In fact, there is a secret tradition between you and the reader which says short sentences promise a surprise is on the way. Some goodie. A toy in the cereal box. But tease the reader too long and she checks out.
That’s where the long sentence enters. That sometimes complex and strange construction winding its way through your paragraphs.
It’s like the ground beneath a hiker suddenly gives way and carries her down the mountainside, breathless, until she finds her footing again on the solid path, and plods on, savoring the joy of surviving the near miss.
That’s the power of a good long sentence. Something you can — and should — pull off in the prosaic world of web writing.
But before you run off to pump some long sentences into your prose, there’s something you should know. In the wrong hands long sentences can become dreadful. Or simply weak.
An abundance of And
Some writers believe longs sentences are simply made by coupling clauses with the word and. This is called polysyndeton, and yes, it is one of twelve literary devices you can use to take charge of your boring writing. But it’s a cheap way to get a long sentence.
In the right hands, a long sentence coupled with the word and will build in power and pace. The action pushes the plot forward because the writer is pointing the gaze of the reader to something going on in the world. He’s obeying the golden rule of writing.
But in the wrong hands, this trick becomes nothing more than a meaningless connector. You might as well use periods.
This is another literary trick I taught you. In this case, same word starts multiple clauses. This Dave Eggers sentence is a classic example of anaphora:
I fly past the smaller shops, past the men drinking wine on the benches, past the old men playing dominoes, past the restaurants and the Arabs selling clothes and rugs and shoes, past the twins my age, Ahok and Awach Ugieth, two very kind and hardworking girls carrying bundles of kindling on their heads, Hello, Hello, we say, and finally I step into the darkness of my father’s stores, completely out of breath.”
The repeated word is past. And it works because the writer is describing a boy running through an African marketplace. It’s a sentence that mirrors the action of the subject. It is pointing the reader to something happening in the world (in this case, a fictional world).
But too many anaphoras and the copy can become confusing, burdensome. In that case, you might as well use periods.
Endless supply of semicolons
The amateur writer thinks churning out a long list connected with semicolons is the same thing as churning out a brilliant long sentence. Like so:
I was in a surly mood when I woke up so I went to the record store; bought a Wagner album; teased the clerk; downed an iced tea; taunted the vendor who sold it to me; stole cheese from my roommate to make a sandwich; dropped the album on the record player, slid my headphones on, and devoured the sandwich in three bites; three hours later I was in a worse mood.
There is pace. It builds. But this is just the word and in a different gown. Not a sexy long sentence. You might as well use periods.
The parenthetical pain
Usually occurs when the writer has to explain something that happened before (backstory). That’s not a bad thing, mind you. It’s only a bad thing if the backstory is more interesting than the present action. And if that’s the case, then just dispense with the present, and begin in the past.
My two attempts at a long sentence in the opening of this article involve parenthetical statements. Remove those statements and the sentences work just fine. Better, in fact.
The magic of resumptive modifier
This neat trick repeats a word in the second clause that was used in the first. Jesse Hines use this simple sentence as an example:
The restaurant serves excellent sushi, sushi that bursts with flavor.”
The bolded word is repeated, and then its meaning is expanded. Slick, but not much of a long sentence. There is a better way.
Swimming in summative modifiers
These modifiers summarizes something said in the previous statement, usually the main clause. In Rhetorical Style, Jean Fahnestock writes, “The resumptive modifier reaches into a string of terms and pulls out one for the emphasis of repetition.”
The defensive coaches taught risk-taking, ball-hawking, and perpetual movement — three strategies that bewildered the opposition and resulted in many bad passes, steals, and easy fastbreak baskets.
New information about the three bolded phrases is added in the second clause. And the second clause begins with a reference to those three phrases.
In the introduction I created a summative modifier in my second long sentence. But instead of putting it at the end of the sentence, I stuck it in the middle. That, too, is a no-no.
Let me show you why.
Branch to the right
The simplest and best way to write a long sentence is to state the subject and verb as early as you can in the beginning of the sentence, and simply to branch to the right.
Gasper Hicks stared down at the dead teenager at the foot of his door and realized he knew him; knew him as a boy, from the days when Gasper taught Sunday school, knew him as a blonde, dirt-faced kid desperate for attention, knew him as one of the dozen anxious children they bussed from the trailer park.
In other words, if you keep the subject and the verb together, then you should not confuse the reader, no matter what you pile on afterwards. When you branch to the right, the reader, Stephen Pinker, author of The Sense of style, says, “never has to keep a phrase suspended in memory for long while new words pour in. That tree has been shaped to spread the cognitive load over time.”
Read this 2,167 word monster sentence by Gabriel Garcia Marquez called “The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship” and you’ll see what I mean. It works because the action went in one direction and did not depend upon anything in the past.
But I wouldn’t recommend such an approach for web writing. A wee bit excessive.
Fortunately English is a right-branching language, so it should come naturally. But beware. Those parenthetical lame backstories or list of semicolons can slip in. And keep in mind, modifiers at the start of sentence are useful, but keep them short.
Image source: Dorothy Lin