In Celebration of Long Sentences

C. S. Lewis said he had no use for reviews of his own works. The positive reviews puffed him up, the critical reviews riled him up, and neither the puffing nor the riling were good for the soul. So I should stop reading blog reviews, I really should, especially after the most recent one said my book was too “wordy.” That’s never been said of me before. What most people would never guess is that I am a fan of the long sentence, and here are some nice quotes on their value.

Writes essayist and novelist Pico Iyer in his recent article:

No writer can compete, for speed and urgency, with texts or CNN news flashes or RSS feeds, but any writer can try to give us the depth, the nuances — the “gaps,” as Annie Dillard calls them — that don’t show up on many screens. Not everyone wants to be reduced to a sound bite or a bumper sticker.

Enter (I hope) the long sentence: the collection of clauses that is so many-chambered and lavish and abundant in tones and suggestions, that has so much room for near-contradiction and ambiguity and those places in memory or imagination that can’t be simplified, or put into easy words, that it allows the reader to keep many things in her head and heart at the same time, and to descend, as by a spiral staircase, deeper into herself and those things that won’t be squeezed into an either/or. With each clause, we’re taken further and further from trite conclusions — or that at least is the hope — and away from reductionism, as if the writer were a dentist, saying “Open wider” so that he can probe the tender, neglected spaces in the reader (though in this case it’s not the mouth that he’s attending to but the mind).

The long sentence does make probing ambiguity possible, but it can also communicate stout specificity that short sentences sometimes lack. Says Brooks Landon in his course Building Great Sentences:

Cumulative sentences [ie long, right-branching sentences] can take any number of forms, detailing both frozen or static scenes and moving processes, their insistent rhythm always asking for another modifying phrase, allowing us to achieve ever-greater degrees of specificity and precision, a process of focusing the sentence in much the same way a movie camera can focus and refocus on a scene, zooming in for a close-up to reveal almost microscopic detail, panning back to offer a wide-angle panorama, offering new angles or perspectives from which to examine a scene or consider an idea. …

Cumulative sentences that start with a brief base and then start picking up new information much as a snowball gets larger as it rolls downhill, fascinate me with their ability to add information that actually makes the sentence easier to read and more satisfying because it starts answering questions as quickly as an inquisitive reader might think of them, using each modifying phrase to clarify what has gone before, and to reduce the need for subsequent explanatory sentences, flying in the face of the received idea that cutting words rather than adding them is the most effective way to improve writing, reminding us that while in some cases, less in indeed more, in many cases more is more, and more is what our writing needs.

2 thoughts on “In Celebration of Long Sentences

  1. I love a long sentence and I love to write them but I think there’s a lot to be said for concise one as well. At least for me, I focus on the pace and the rhythm of the lines and make sure that my descriptions aren’t getting in the way of the flow. Congratulations on your book publication and best wishes for getting through the reviews in one piece. :)

  2. Building Great Sentences is a marvelous course. I bought it year before last and enjoyed every lecture. I’m at lecture #18 the second time around and learning much more this time. I like to mix up sentence length for rhythm.

    John

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