Sentence art: Death to the Short Sentence and Saying what Needs to be Said

Peter B. GiblettStarred Page By Peter B. Giblett, 15th Apr 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Tips

How were you taught to use language at school? Were you told to write short sentences? Truth is there is no need to abbreviate your writing, you should let the creativity flow and the best way to do this is through longer sentences. Give it a try.

A Great Sense of Adventure?

Along with many in my generation we were taught that to be well understood we had to keep our sentences short and too the point, yet if you look at classic novelists it can be seen that dramatical sentences are anything but brief, many rambling along pointing in many new directions as they play their carefully crafted sentences out; quite a difference when modern schooling says we should keep a sentence down to a minimal number of words. Clearly there is a divergence between English teaching at a basic level and the works of the master craftsmen or women of the language, why? What can we do to correct this?

Perhaps there is a feeling that not all of us mere mortals can be master craftsmen of the English language and that teachers, in recognition of this proposition, wish to simplify how the language is taught. Whilst it is agreed not everyone has the desire or will to be a master of the language there is no reason why anyone cannot possess the desire to master the skills of applied language use, through writing or speaking indeed to use this language well needs great expression and a great sense of adventure, a way to play with each word much as a child plays with their favourite toy and derives hours of enjoyment from it and honestly we should all be encouraged to explore and become more adventurous in the words we use through the clauses, phrases, and sentences we build.

After some time we should also become adept at correct use of commas, semi-colons, colons and aim to avoid the tried and trusted full stop until it really is necessary, this will aid us to become more adept at the English language, remembering that it is important use sentences effectively, mixing short and long ones as well as joining clauses and propositions together in a string that paints a picture to the reader or listener. It has been said that we all have a novel inside of us, mine has reached about 50,000 words in length, yet producing such a masterpiece of English literature rests on powerful prose and readable sentences that take the reader on a journey that both interests them and keeps them involved.

The way we were Taught

In school teachers taught us that sentences should generally be between 8 and 25 words in length and that we should make one, and only one, point in each sentence, in teaching that it was almost as if they were training my generation to talk only in staccato mode as if anticipating the future advent of the text message, truth is we do not have to be so clinical with our writing and much can be gained by being more adventurous with our words and phrases and expanding the length of sentences by adding associated phrases to add either more details or to carry the story a particular direction. Of course your experience of language teaching may have been different as standards do differ from country to country and over time

The truth is school was not kind to many writers because it has left us ill informed about how to write powerful and imaginative prose focusing simply on enough to get the job done, certainly not enough to allow the reader to be truly fulfilled. Indeed I was talking to a young writer just days ago who was convinced that in order to speed up the pace it is essential to write sentences that almost resembled bullet points, giving a bang, bang, bang effect to his prose; truth is all action scenes have an ebb and flow, a type of rhythm that forces the reader to pick up the pace as the action unfolds, the great writer keeps their readers glued to the page at this point, and they do not have to resort to short sentences and paragraphs to portray fast paced action scenes, it always flows from the words used.

If you think about it, school gives us a foundation from which we build the rest of our lives upon, teachers can probably only provide such a foundation, but it is the basis on which all else is built, for the extra though we must educate ourselves, so that when our knowledge of language is combined with other life experiences allows us to demonstrate something to others from our unique perspective, gained from life; like opening the door to the reader just a crack.

The Sentence: The heart of the writers craft

Consider that each sentence is shaped by specific content and driven by a specific purpose and writers can use them to tell whatever story should be told, this story is the author's to tell thus they are responsible for content, painting the picture, then demonstrating the purpose, shape, style, and sentence structure, of course much is also about using the right words at the right time and in the most appropriate way to tell the story that needs to be told, perhaps also hiding those elements they wish to in order to be just a little mysterious. Remember when you are writing non fiction you are also telling a story, it may be factual but it is a story nonetheless.

Making Sentences Longer

One of the simplest ways to make sentences longer is through use of the comma, or through joining words such as "and, but, because, so, or, like". Consider the following sentence:

    The cat sat on the mat.

It is a sentence that is at the heart of learning to read, but it is devoid of descriptive elements, truth is you can do so much with this simple sentence for instance adding more details about either the cat or the mat - such as the large male cat or the little kitten; the bright red mat or the muddy grey doormat; then it would also be possible to add details about where the action is happening, such as in the hallway at the bottom of the stairs and why the cat was there at this particular time, these extra details will drive the imagination and make the story flow much better, all are about adding to the basic proposition the sentence provides in order to guide the reader through the journey of the story being told, it all combines to make more powerful images and a story line. The following is so much more than the simple sentence earlier:

    Tom, the large ginger cat was the gentleman of the house and also it's tiger, his owner Priscilla was proud of him, paying homage to him with her stories to all her friends and by all accounts he was far more attentive to her needs than any human male had ever been and in return he dutifully awaited her return from work on the mat near the front door, his fur covered most of the surface of the old red coloured rug as this was one of the by-products of being long haired yet it was something he was proud of, so much so that his fur needed constant preening and attention, the rest of the time he slept and dreamed of her return but all the time he not only sat on, but ruled, the mat and made it clear to everyone who ever entered this domain just who was the master of this house.

This changes everything it gives us some hooks to cling on to and gives the sentence character. Of course teachers need that original sentence as a language learning aid for young minds that are starting to read but that should only be the beginning of adventure with the language, sadly too many people cease improving once their schooling comes to an end but how we use the English language is one area we should pay attention to.

Give Readers a Journey

What do you wish to share? Whatever it is, even writing on the driest of topics, should aim to excite and make us feel as if we understand the topic more than before and this is because of the skill of the writer and the story being told, ultimately it is about the words used plus the sentences and paragraphs constructed.

Do you know where you are going? The novelist knows the value of the journey and this is a lesson the on-line writer needs to learn. One of the biggest challenges for on-line writing is the flow of the topic, the arguments to be made, the points to be covered, just remember how limited the piece can look if the article is missing a crucial component. As a youth I was taught the value of planning before writing, but in reality there is not always time because the report is needed in twenty minutes and the orderliness becomes the victim.

Even two minutes planning aids the journey, ultimately for what we write; it is most often about the journey rather than the conclusions or recommendations made, combined with this is the need to ensure the journey is complete - do the proof reading and when you have completed that proof read it again.

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Comments

author avatar Retired
15th Apr 2013 (#)

I was taught to vary my sentences, from long to short. Good article. :-)

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author avatar Steve Kinsman
15th Apr 2013 (#)

Ditto Starleena - I was taught the same. Hemingway is an exception, often writing very short sentences. Great article, Peter. thank you.

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author avatar Peter B. Giblett
15th Apr 2013 (#)

Starrleen and Steve, Experience has shown me that variety is the spice of life and mixing long and short sentences works very well.

Hemingway is of-course always an exception to any rule constructed in the language, yet his work has stood the test of time.

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author avatar Buzz
15th Apr 2013 (#)

Murdering the English language often ends up with a death sentence.:) Thanks, Peter.

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author avatar Ms. Ann
15th Apr 2013 (#)

This is an interesting and thought provoking article. My favorite English teacher was always admonishing me about "run-on" sentences. I like for a writer to describe to me the point they are making. I guess we all have personal quirks about writing. Good article.

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author avatar Stella Mitchell
15th Apr 2013 (#)

I love the English language , and am therefore partial to it being taught correctly , and for the writer to be articulate in the rendering of his or her work so as to keep the reader always longing for the next sentence . Thank you Peter for a very interesting and helpful article .
Bless you
Stella

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author avatar C.D. Moore
15th Apr 2013 (#)

Yes, I ran into the same thing at school. " run on sentences.' How great to be free of that now.
Great article Peter.

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author avatar johnbee
16th Apr 2013 (#)

Happens by kids all the time.

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author avatar cnwriter..carolina
16th Apr 2013 (#)

very interesting this Peter...the only thing I can add is why do so many people use commas after every three words?

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author avatar Sivaramakrishnan A
16th Apr 2013 (#)

We need to remember these basics so that we improve all the time. Conveying clearly and interestingly in a logical way is paramount. I try to keep the topic in mind to avoid going off on a tangent - siva

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author avatar Delicia Powers
18th Apr 2013 (#)

Thanks Peter...

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author avatar Sam Ginest
28th Apr 2013 (#)

I think it's a tragedy that so many younger people do not or cannot understand the use of punctuation.
I also think, in furtherance of this author's point, that the classics of literature are an indispensable tool for any aspiring author.
Byron and Tennyson were accomplished poets, but neither of them set out with that goal in mind.

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author avatar Sam Ginest
28th Apr 2013 (#)

Other authors to study include Terry Pratchett (for his adroit use of humor), and Stephen Donaldson (for vocabulary).

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author avatar johnbee
1st May 2013 (#)

And there are others for a good laugh.

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