1. waitingforzion
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    waitingforzion Active Member

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    Clarity and Long Sentences

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by waitingforzion, Dec 31, 2014.

    People here keep telling me that I need to break my sentences up into shorter ones. They seem to think sentences need to contain a limited number of clauses and only express a certain amount of information. But I read in a book that sentences need not contain so few words, but only words that do not add propositional content. Cumulative sentences can contain clauses great in number and several levels deep. So I don't understand why people are telling me to write short sentences. I would much rather they tell me how to write better long ones. Not that I don't appreciate their advice. I know that writing restricted sentences aids with clarity. But at some point I need to write clear sentences that are more complex. What do you think?
     
  2. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Firstly, advice is just advice.

    Secondly, having participated in the conversation that gave rise to this question, they are giving you the advice they are giving you because the longer, convoluted sentences you were constructing show a poor grasp of clause logic and the way in which a reader follows the who-does-what-to-whom of a sentence. It was imperative that we see the core idea wanting to be expressed before we could deduce if the larger structure you created had any connection to that core idea. Also, when you finally broke the idea down to its core concept, the idea proved to be a very simple one. The reason for elaborating it into such a large, baroque structure remains unclear; hence, you are being guided to write it simply, there being as of yet no contextual reason for it to be something other.
     
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  3. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Sentence length isn't your problem. In my opinion, it's the way you phrase things. A lot of the sample passages you post read like something written in the 19th century. I'm guessing you don't read a lot of contemporary fiction.
     
  4. waitingforzion
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    waitingforzion Active Member

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    How would I go about getting a stronger grasp of clause logic?

    As for structure, it should be possible to arrange the components of that simple idea into longer sentences, no? because when I wrote the paragraph they said was clearest, it was several sentences long.
     
  5. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Clearly it's possible, but as the sentence grows without cause, it becomes as a tumor, needless replication that serves no purpose and in the end harms the whole organism. Since it's been hard to get an example from you of what your goal is, an example that expresses what you wish to emulate, I'll give one of my own that expresses what I think you're trying to achieve. I might be completely off, but without guidance from you...

    This is the first page of Samuel R. Delany's book, Dhalgren (1975). Delany is known for his literary treatment of genre lit, in this case science fiction. Delany is a writer with an intimidating understanding of making words brisé and plie.

    to wound the autumnal city.

    So howled out for the world to give him a name.

    The in-dark answered with wind.

    All you know I know: careening astronauts and bank clerks glancing at the clock before lunch; actresses cowling at light-ringed mirrors and freight elevator operators grinding a thumbful of grease on a steel handle; student riots; know that dark women in bodegas shook their heads last week because in six months prices have risen outlandishly; how coffee tastes after you've held it in your mouth, cold, a whole minute.

    A whole minute he squatted, pebbles clutched with his left foot (the bare one), listening to his breath sound tumble down the ledges.

    Beyond a leafy arras, reflected moonlight flittered.

    He rubbed his palms against denim. Where he was, was still. Somewhere else, wind whined.

    The leaves winked.


    The first sentence looks like the clipped end of a longer sentence, and it is. This is exactly as it is published. The clipped sentence is the tail end of a sentence that occurs in another book read within this one. Metafiction. Notice the length and complexity of the 4th paragraph, all one contrived sentence. It's quite baroque in structure, and the purpose is very clear. Delany means to give you a whirlwind of images, from one place to another, the images understood as simultaneous and part of a greater descriptive whole. There is motion and pause, motion and pause. Cadence and rhythm. Notice the stark simplicity of the last two sentences in the 7th and 8th paragraphs. He says volumes in just 4 words. Length and complexity need reason to guide them, be the length long or very short.
     
  6. Fitzroy Zeph
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    Fitzroy Zeph Contributing Member Contributor

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    Is that the book by Brooks Landon?
     
  7. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    My sentences tend to be pretty long, too. I often struggle to fit a complex thought into a sentence, but I equally struggle to break it into separate sentences. Sometimes, I begin not by trying to write a valid sentence, but by writing thought fragments that I can understand. With the words in front of me, I see how they fit together into a sentence, like pieces of a puzzle. Think about how much easier it is to solve a jigsaw puzzle when the pieces are already in the general area where they should be than when the pieces are randomly scattered.
     
  8. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Long sentence:

    I chopped the onions into pieces the size of small peas, tossed them into a skillet with two tablespoons of butter, stirred them for forty minutes on a gentle heat, and pulled them off the heat just before they started to burn.

    That's a long sentence with many clauses, but I think(?) it's pretty easy to understand.

    Long sentence in the same order, but with unnecessary complexity:

    I decomposed the root vegetables, changing their shape into the smallest of morsels, placed the resulting shapes of aromatic vegetable matter in a metal vessel containing a melted portion of fat from a bovine source, disrupted their position regularly for a portion of time equalling two score minutes, and watched, intently and with focus, for the moment that they might be too far heated, too much deprived of moisture, too close to blackness, before I removed their current home, their container vessel, from the source of heat and fire.

    Long sentence with unnecessary complexity and the events out of order:

    I watched the aromatic fragments of vegetable for two score minutes, after having placed them in the vessel, because my goal was to cook them, as aforestated, to cook and warm them, to heat their innate sugars and render out their moisture, to make them brown, to produce an aroma that might arouse one's appetite, after which I would remove the vessel of heat from the source of heat, but before all of this happened, those fragments were produced by my action of decomposition from the whole vegetable, the whole bulb, the entire onion, with the use of a metal blade.

    The first sentence uses words and phrases that are no more complex than they need to be. Henry Mitchell, a garden writer who, I think, did have a good bit of poetry in his soul, said,

    Do not permit anything in the garden to be more costly, in material, than is necessary. If wood poles will serve, don't use brick columns. If brick will do, don't use stone. if stone will do, don't use marble.

    I think that this advice can also be applied to writing. (I've quote it here before.) You're using marble when wood poles, or maybe a piece of string, would do.
     
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  9. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    To go on with the "no more complex than they need to be" idea:

    In my first sentence I referred to "a skillet." This is a very ordinary, everyday word. In the second, I referred to a "vessel". This is a fancier word, but it is unnecessary. "Skillet" defines what we need, and the fancier word is not more informative, more communicative...it's not "more" anything, except fancy. Fanciness alone is not a sufficient reason for using a word. Now, depending on your audience, you might decide that "frying pan" is better, or even "shallow pan." But if your audience is one that uses "skillet" for that pan, then that's what you should use.

    If your audience had no idea what a skillet or frying pan or even a "pan" was, then in describing it you might define it, once, as a "a shallow metal vessel with a round base and sides a few inches high." There, we used "vessel" to describe a very general shape. The word has a reason for being in the sentence. It's not there because it's fancier, it's there because the simpler concepts are unknown to your audience.

    Similarly, "chopped" is simple and clear. "Decomposed" is a fancier word that is less, not more, informative.

    "two tablespoons of butter" is simpler and clearer than "melted portion of fat from a bovine source."

    "stirred" is simpler and clearer than "disrupted their position"

    "forty minutes" is simpler and clearer than "a portion of time equalling two score minutes."

    In the second and third sentence I substituted these less simple, less clear, "fancier" words. And so I made the sentence less clear.

    Use the simplest, clearest word. The way to elevate your writing is not to use fancy, less clear words when simpler, clearer ones will do.
     
  10. Fitzroy Zeph
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    Fitzroy Zeph Contributing Member Contributor

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    There are countless examples of long, gorgeous sentences. I'm sure many of these could have been shortened, but would have lost their true impact if they had.
     
  11. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Be concise, but not terse. A sentence must not wander, but if it takes more words to get from A to B, so be it.

    And make sure your sentence is doing the job of a sentence, not that of a paragraph or a chapter.
     
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  12. Salvador
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    Salvador Banned

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    Sentence long or short isn't your problem. In my opinion, it's the way you phrase things etc.
     
  13. lustrousonion
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    lustrousonion Contributing Member

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    With respect, they are telling you how to write better long sentences. Until you can write effective and concise sentences, longer sentences will always be a challenge--for you and the reader. When you've got this down and eventually start writing more complex sentences, it will be easier for others to help pinpoint where and how you can improve.

    I think the best advice is for you to put an entire work up for critique.
     
  14. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I don't remember your writing, but regarding the idea of long sentences - I think it's a case of running and walking. If you can't write beautiful, powerful short sentences with clarity, then what on earth makes you think you can write a long sentence? Learn to walk before you learn to run. Short sentences have their beauty and purpose, as do long sentences. If you insist on writing only long sentences (a presumption on my part - perhaps you're not insisting at all), then I question whether you understand the purpose of a long sentence? Long and short sentences are both just tools. And not every tool is fit for every job.

    I remember when I was at university, I got marked down consistently for poor essay structure and clarity. Still managed to get a good degree out of it. I was always baffled - I thought I was writing well. It was my aim to write "beautifully". Unfortunately, at the time, "beautifully" meant long, elaborate sentences that use unnecessary words. ("Convoluted" is the word you're after, and no, convoluted is never good lol) I think my personal favourites were "as such" and "indeed". It wasn't until years later - after graduation - that I reread my essays and, by that point, having improved my own writing, too, that I finally saw how badly written my essays were. The sentences are long and full of flowery language, and quite frankly the meaning was damn unclear. It wasn't incomprehensible - it got the meaning across - but it clouded the meaning rather than clarified, which defeats the very point of writing (esp an essay, in this case). It was, quite simply, unnecessary.

    So perhaps that's what you're doing, too, in your fiction. You think one way of writing is supposedly beautiful, and because you're the writer, of course the meaning of the sentence is clear to you. But you don't see how your word choices and structure actually hinder understanding rather than elaborate.

    Also, elaboration is very good when the details are interesting and relevant to the story and characters. Elaboration for elaboration's sake is boring - truth is, these things are like baby pictures. No one besides the parents themselves want to flick through and study every photo in a lengthy family album. Good and sweet though those things might be, most people are quite frankly not interested. Understanding when something is interesting to the reader and relevant is key to, well, holding their interest and succeeding in having your book read.
     

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