Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The beauty of long sentences in your memoir

Saturday we began looking at your memoir’s sentences: The way you write them can enhance your readers’ (a) enjoyment and (b) their understanding of your message.

Specifically, we considered writing short sentences and sentence fragments for impact and punch. (Click on Sentences are a little like purses …” if you missed it.) 

You also want to vary sentence length: Write both short, simple sentences and long, complex ones.  

This is how Joseph F. Williams explains it:

“A clear and concise sentence is a singular achievement, a whole passage of them even more so. But if all your sentences were so concise that they never exceeded 20 words, you’d be like a pianist who could play only a few notes at a time.… A competent writer must therefore know both how to write clear short sentences, and how to combine those short sentences into one that is longer and more complex, but just as concise and just as easy to understand.” (Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace; emphasis mine)

There’ll always be a place for the short sentence,” Pico Iyer says, praising “compressed wisdom” and “elegant conciseness,” but he also says “…We’ve got shortness and speed up the wazoo these days. The long sentence opens up the very doors that a short sentence simply slams shut.”

Iyer describes a well-crafted long sentence as “… the collection of clauses … many-chambered and lavish and abundant in tones and suggestions.…”

“I cherish [famous writer] Thomas Pynchon’s prose … not just because it’s beautiful, but because his long, impeccable sentences take me, with each clause, further from the normal and predictable, and deeper into dimensions I hadn’t dared contemplate.…

“The promise of the long sentence is that it will take you beyond the known, far from shore, into depths and mysteries you can’t get your mind, or most of your words, around.…

“When I feel the building tension as Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ swells with clause after biblical clause of all the things people of his skin color cannot do—I feel as if I’m stepping out on the crowded, overlighted fluorescent culture of my local convenience store and being taken up to a very high place from which I can see across time and space, in myself and in the world.” (Pico Iyer, “The Writing Life: The point of the long and winding sentence,” Special to the Los Angeles Times; emphasis mine)

On Saturday we’ll look at long sentences again. Between now and then, look over your rough drafts and experiment with writing both short sentences and long sentences.

Then read them aloud and see how they sound. Remember what Collette and Johnson said, “… Arrange, rearrange, or prearrange them to suit particular purposes.” (Finding Common Ground)

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