When you write prose with long sentences, consisting of many subordinate clauses winding their way around the main message—clauses interrupted by afterthoughts between dashes, or by elaborate modifiers—it is unlikely that your prose will appeal to readers less used to highbrow prose. On the other hand, seasoned readers may not appreciate your convoluted prose either—not because they are incapable of deciphering periodic sentences, but because they see through them and soon discover that the same message could have been conveyed with more clarity, without unnecessary bells and whistles.
Reducing average word and sentence lengths can help lower the level of difficulty. This may be of vital importance, for instance, when you write for a certain age group or wish to reach out to a broad demographic.
However, we do not for one moment believe that your prose will gain value by restricting it to strings of choppy, short sentences, issued like bullets from a machine gun. Such prose is unreadable to any target group. We suggest you enhance the readability of your prose by its cadence: cutting out dead wood, varying the length and complexity of sentences and paragraphs, matching form to substance.
Also, we would like to do away with the widespread misunderstanding that long sentences are necessarily difficult or hard to read. Clarity does not depend on brevity at all, and long sentences can be clear if they have a definite drift to them; like a video camera, they may lead the eye of the beholder through an event, focusing on essential details and leaving the rest to the imaginative faculties of the reader.
The thing about long sentences
We owe the following to John Gardner, a famous teacher of Young American prose writers, who died in a motor accident and bequeathed, among other works, The Art of Fiction to posterity.
A sentence, be it long or short, typically consists of three parts. For instance:
The man // was walking // into the village.
1 2 3
Each of these parts may be expanded.
The man, / who had lost his eyesight at age ten, // was walking // into the village
1 2 3
So far, so good. Encouraged by our modest success, we blithely add more details.
The man, / who had lost his eyesight at age ten, // was walking // through the village, / founded by Jefferson.
1 1b 2 3 3c
The message rapidly loses clarity, as do the author’s intentions. Which way is he going? Will he divulge more details about the history of the village, as in 3c? But then why introduce that blind man (1b) walking into it? As a rule of thumb, it is wise to elaborate only one of the constituent parts at a time– either ‘go into’ the blind man or expand on the history—unless details enhance one another, such as in:
The man, /who had lost his eyesight at age ten,// was walking // through the village / with an unsteady gait.
1 1b 2 3 2b (enhancing 1b)
The loss of eyesight is related to the unsteady gait; and as a result, the sentence does not suffer from lack of cohesion. Or lack of direction—which would be lethal when it come to describing action.
Of course the above should not be taken to mean that we disapprove of brevity. There is no reason for contortionism when things can be stated clearly and without ado.
Who is your ideal reader?
Few writers will research the market or look into existing research in order to better address readers. It may be wise to do so; still, we recommend you abstain from such practices as long as you are in the train of the writing itself. There’s no need to disrupt a good flow; and besides, when you are still in the process of writing, your reader isn’t made of flesh and blood. He is an ideal. He has your gender or another gender, comes from a similar or different background to you, shares your frame of reference or dwells in some remote world.
Your ideal reader is writ large in your story; to get acquainted, you merely need to consult the words you have entrusted to the screen so far. Print the document to read it closely. If you can’t find your ideal reader, ask yourself whether you like what you’ve written. If not, you at least know there’s work ahead.
No reason to panic. It may take a while before an episode acquires spontaneity and allure. But why would this ideal reader be so important to you?
Because this is the voice that talks back to you from the abyss of what is hidden from sight. He, she, or it carries the information you struggle to bring above board in the process of writing.
The ideal reader and the inner censor
The ideal reader is not identical to the so-called inner censor, but they may overlap—especially when you happen to be an inexperienced writer, uncertain about the fruits of your penmanship.
Once, while imagining myself to be in touch with my ideal reader, and with my novel-under-construction on a roll, I made a terrible discovery. The pacing and phrasing of ‘my’ prose was uncannily similar to the style of The Mimic Men, a novel by V.S. Naipaul, which I had just been reading.
Looking back on this ghastly episode, I can honestly say that I am grateful for what I, as an immature writer, have learned from Mr. Naipaul. Even so, writers cannot afford to be ‘mimic men’ and need to unearth their true voice. And to the extent they do, the inner censor will turn into a helper. If you are on track, this censor won’t thwart all your writerly attempts; rather, he will tell you where not to go.