Saturday, March 3, 2012

Especially for wordsmiths, ink-slingers, and painters of words

Wednesday we began looking at the art of writing long sentences, and if you are a wordsmith—an ink-slinger, a painter of words—you’ll enjoy today’s lesson.

Pico Iyer has high praise for long sentences (see The beauty of long sentences if you missed it), but writers must be cautious because “Most of us aren’t terribly good at writing good, long sentences,” according one of my favorite teachers, Peter Jacobi.

If we write not-so-good long sentences for not-so-good readers,” he says, “confusion sets in—fast. The reader forgets by midsentence what the root of the sentence was about.” (The Magazine Article)

To test for clarity—or lack of it—in any sentence longer than three typed lines, Joseph F. Williams suggests you read it aloud. (His paragraph, below, will leave you with a smile.)

“If the process of reading one of your own long sentences gives you the feeling that you are about to run out of breath before you come to a place where you can pause in order to integrate all of the parts of the sentence to get a sense of how its whole fits together to communicate a single conceptual structure, you have identified a sentence that your readers are likely to wish that you had revised. Like that one.” (Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace)

So what are you, the memoir writer, to do?

For starters, notice how other people write long sentences. Some don’t work—as Williams so cleverly showed us above—but others do work well.    

Here’s an example of a brilliantly crafted sentence. It’s worth your time to linger and savor it:

“Riding down to Port Warwick from Richmond, the train begins to pick up speed on the outskirts of the city, past the tobacco factories with their ever-present haze of acrid, sweetish dust and past the rows of uniformly brown clapboard houses which stretch down the hilly streets for miles, it seems, the hundreds of rooftops all reflecting the pale lights of dawn; past the suburban roads still sluggish and sleepy with early morning traffic, and rattling swiftly now over the bridge which separates the last two hills where in the valley below you can see the James River winding beneath its acid-green crust of scum out beside the chemical plants and more rows of clapboard houses and into the woods beyond.” (from the novel Lie Down in Darkness, by William Styron, quoted in Elements of the Writing Craft by Robert Olmstead)

Olmstead helps us analyze Styron’s sentence:

“… The weight of the train at ever-increasing speed [is] evoked in the first line, and the rest is the landscape that sweeps past our window. The images come to us rapidly and clearly because we are moving so quickly and because our eye focuses through the window as if it were the lens of a camera.”

The sentence “mirrors the action of the train, moving over the page the same way the train moves over the land. What the sentence says and does are the same.”

Olmstead points out how Styron crafted his long sentence (121 words!) so well: “… tobacco factories with their  ever-present haze … sweetish dust and past the rows … brown clapboard houses which stretch down … for miles, it seems, the hundreds of rooftops all reflecting … roads still sluggish and sleepy with early morning traffic, and rattling swiftly ….” and so on.

Here’s what Olmstead wants us to notice: “The words in italics are simple, but they make the sentence work. They are as important to master as the clever turn of phrase. They are like gristle or cartilage. They are the stuff between joints and bones that smoothes the action. Without them, the setting goes flat.” (emphasis mine)

Retrieve your rough drafts and look for places long sentences would be effective.

Maybe you, too, have written a vignette about a train ride, or about lifting off a dirt airstrip in a six-seater plane in the jungle, or the desert. (I have.) Have you ever bungee jumped? What other scenes come to your mind—stories in which long sentences, like Styron’s, would work?

Don’t be intimidated: go ahead and experiment with long sentences because they can add texture and dimension to your writing.

Keep in mind that “Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the second or third time” (William Zinsser) so read them aloud and if your experimental sentences don’t work, keep tweaking them—or even toss them, for now.

Most of all, have fun!


  1. May our readers never forget what the root of our sentence is! Thank you for this informative post. It makes me want to writer better AND take a train ride.

  2. Hi, Jess, thanks for stopping by. I do hope you're enjoying your writing endeavors, and we welcome you to SM 101!


  3. Very good, clear, writing instruction, Linda. I used to admire the Hemingwayesque short sentence the best. Now I like to try my hand at this kind of rolling description from time to time. You not only dissected the sentence well but also illuminated how this type of sentence underscores meaning for both the writer and appreciative readers.

    1. Shirley, thank you for stopping by and leaving your wise comments. I'm enjoying your blog so much.

      Happy writing!


  4. Linda,
    This is such a valuable lesson spelled out very clearly by example and then dissected in such detail as to show why it works. I think I just wrote a long sentence! Now I'll have to read it aloud to see if it needs to be tweaked. :-)

    Thanks for these great instructions!


    1. Kathy, I love your long sentence. :) Keep up the good work.

      Thanks for the oodles of inspiration you share in your blog. Bless you as you work on that memoir.