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.
7 keys to writing a brilliant long sentence
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.
1. 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.
2. Anaphora abuse
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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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
Christi Johnson says
Great article, Demian.
What is interesting is that, in the world of copy, we are taught to write as concisely as we possibly can. I read that sentence by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and nearly died. He definitely did well to branch to the right, but why not just put in periods or semicolons and be a lot more clear?
I do not imagine too many readers of web writing who would suffer a sentence that long. Those of us who were Literature majors might do so out of curiosity or for the sake of studying the art, but should we write that way for the web? This article doesn’t convince me of why we should do that…not that you were trying to convince us.
If our goal is to attract our reader, why write in this manner?
All of this written I feel that I have gone back to school. Thank you. This was a fascinating read, Demian.
I cannot wait for your next article.
Demian Farnworth says
I almost died, too. He indulged himself. Plenty of opportunity to use periods. PLENTY. And no, I’ve adjusted the copy to reflect your thought that I’m not suggesting people write sentences that long. And sorry I didn’t convince you. That’s what the opening was for. To explain the benefits. Guess it didn’t work. 😀
Jason Cancino says
I do agree with Christi, but since you said you have changed the copy after reading her comment, I feel like you did leave a transition for what you were trying to point out right before you get into it:
“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.”
So based on those 2 paragraphs above, it tells me we need to change it up a bit, use a “long, or overly long” sentence every now and then but do it properly.
What I like most about your article, is that you really break down the writing, helping us become better writers in the process….thx for this.
demian farnworth says
K.C. Oliver says
The digital age has changed the way we read. We skim copy for important bits of information that cater specifically to our need to know. Being concise and grammatically nuanced, as well as quick and relevant is a challenge. My goal is to gain more in skills and great instructions on writing the best sentences that have lasting value in the shortest sentence structure. I appreciate the blog!
Demian Farnworth says
Thanks, K.C. Hope you find value in here.
Mia Sherwood Landau says
Of all your posts I’ve selected to read, this one is definitely the most delicious. Not only am I printing it out for my Brilliance notebook, I’ll dine on it whenever I’m hungry for wisdom. You nailed this one, Demian. Wow. Just wow.
Demian Farnworth says
Thank you for the kind words Mia! You humble me.
But damn, it’s nice to see a heavy-saddled sentence once again. But a lot harder to work too, for me anyway.
Ok, back to Haiku.
Demian Farnworth says
Just occasionally. Not many longs sentences.
Tom Southern says
Morrisey’s now infamous long sentences in his recent biography spring to mind. I’m not sure if these sentences are good or bad, or whether they add to the story or not. He can probably get away with it. Me, probably not. I find that the best way to judge if a sentence is too long is to add a full stop (period) at the point it starts to stop making sense.
Also, there’s the added input of all the different devices on which we read these days. Long sentences seem to prefer paper. They don’t seem to work so well on screens, especially those tiny ones that come on smart phones. Sentences need to work with the mechanism that transports them.
And then there’s fashion. What worked in 19th century novels doesn’t work today. But then, fashion is circular, which means longer sentences may make a comeback.
Demian Farnworth says
I want to read that biography. Great point about devices. I don’t know many people who read long form on phones (I do, but don’t prefer it), but who read it on tablets. This includes ebooks, PDFs, and articles. You right: the writer has to ask will this be seen on a mobile?
Robyn Barnes says
Were you taught to diagram sentences in school? It’s a lost art today but it certainly helps me when I find myself lost in a long sentence.
Demian Farnworth says
I believe I was, though I don’t remember. I watch my children do it. ;D
Wade Harman says
BOOM! …that was my brain exploding. I’ve gotta take this in again.
Another Great post … resource.
Both Long and short sentences have their place. It depends on what you’re writing and the mood you’re trying to create.
Short sentences are appropriate for the web as they tend to be easier to read. Easier to understand and carry more impact.
Long sentences require more mental energy. They’re usually complex, with subordinate clauses. But in the hands of good writers, a long sentence can be as impactful as a short one. And just as clear. Faulker was the master of this — at least to me.
Hemingway, the acknowledged master of the short sentence, wrote some long ones, especially in “Death in the Afternoon” and “Green Hills of Africa.” This last book has a sentence over 400 words long, and theclarity is there.
Natalie Petitto says
I absolutely love this! I’ve been fascinated with long sentences since I started reading Fitzgerald as a teen. It takes skill and practice to master the long sentence. Too many writers, especially web writers, don’t know grammar well enough to write solid, long sentences with variations in form, such as the examples in your post. I agree that long sentences don’t work well in web writing, but I also think it’s necessary to provide some variation, wake people up a bit, and remind ourselves that we’re still writers.
Demian Farnworth says
Yes, “wake people up a bit.” That’s exactly what I meant. I feel joy when I read a good long sentence.
John Patrick Weiss says
Demian- all the conventional wisdom on web writing endorses the short sentence but sometimes breaking away from conventional wisdom makes the writer unique and spawns a new sort of conventional wisdom. Great post.
Eddie Shleyner says
Tremendous advice, Demian. Is Show-Don’t-Tell your middle name?
One of my favorite writers, Martin Prechtel, specializes in run-on sentences. Here is a sample:
“But the best long- distance running I ever saw at that school happened when the heroes of my youth— a group of boys, famous runners all of them, about sixteen years old, several already married, but all of them still in the sixth grade— agreed to run in their first competitive long- distance races. One of our more sneaky and desperately determined coaches secretly marked the finish line with chalk about two hundred yards beyond where it would actually lie by official track standards in order to get the kids running hard across the invisible real line without lagging for the slower ones. But he was outwitted yet again. This had been a 10,000- meter race on the reservation against teams from many other places. When the five boys came leisurely striding in at least a mile and a half ahead of all the visiting runners and while casually sharing their third disqualifying Camel cigarette as they sailed along, they not only technically won a world record that would still hold today if it had been accepted on the basis of time alone, but then after unknowingly having crossed the secret finish line together, in order to avoid what they thought was the marked finish line, these copper- bodied human birds took a collective left and just kept running and coursing the remaining five- and- a- half miles back to their home village through the beautiful high- piled boulder desert hills and sandy arroyos in blossom with the wild parsley and four- petaled yellow mustards of spring to disappear utterly from the white man’s world, their school, and its program of achievements, running straight into the initiation kivas where they began their antique lives cloistered again as Pueblo Indians for the rest of their adult lives. Three of them are there to this very day. ” – The Unlikely Peace at Cuchumaqic
Just for you, enjoy! He keeps me panting for more, every time.
I believe a good long sentence thrown, randomly, into the copy can actually be good, even when one is writing for the web. It can help the writer showcase their skill and help them build authority on their niche. However, there is a real danger of confusing the reader if the long sentence is poorly constructed or is over-used.
Great tutorial. On point, once again. Thanks Demian.
James Hughes says
This is a writing classic that shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s hard on the eyes, though. Most internet readers just skim and scan articles and seeing walls of text loses their interests.
Thank you for sharing this post. It is very useful for us.
I’m reading Jane Austen whose long sentences made me write a few on paper just to contemplate them for their perfection, their nuance, and clarity.
Thanks for this post.