Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 27 November 2008

The long and the short of it (part one)

There can be no 'correctness' apart from usage.
—C. C. Fries, American academic

Lenin Nair is an interesting guy. His name alone is interesting. And, yes, that's who he's named after (I had to ask). He runs a blog called Cute Writing which I read from time to time. One thing he has a thing about is concise writing, using short sentences and not wasting words.

He's not the only one. I keep tripping over posts harping on at me to cut down on my words but it was one of Lenin's most recent posts that caught my attention and fired my imagination.

Say, an author wastes one word in every five sentences. There are 80,000 words in his latest novel. And there are 4 words in average in each sentence. This means ideally he wastes the first word of every sentence! Okay, here goes my calculation…

Totally 80,000 divided by (4*5) is what we want (is my math correct? I am weak in it). So, it is 4000. Our author wasted 4000 words in his novel. Now, to read those 4000 words, a reader requires one hour extra, let’s assume. And this is highly economical. Most authors waste far more than that.

One more assumption: our author has twenty books in writing (20 best sellers, each sold one million copies). Now, each book makes one hour waste on extra unnecessary words. So, our author makes 20 million of general public hours wasted! It is up to you to calculate how many days, months, or years it is. There are hundreds of best selling authors, and thousands of non-best selling ones, who give more danger to community than someone like Osama bin-Laden. They are delaying a lot of progress by riveting their readers’ attention on their useless words rather than their useful ones. - Why Waste Words in Writing?

Don't you just love statistics? I always have despite the fact I failed my Statistics exam at college but what were the odds on that? Personally I tend to stay clear of them. I don't trust 'em. But this is clearly just a bit of fun from Lenin to make a serious point.

It's something that I find myself running across more and more these days, online articles telling me how to write concisely, how many words per sentence, how many sentences per paragraph – and I am not jesting here. Tell me something, when did words become an endangered species?

I have a problem with all this. Although I agree that some authors do waffle on endlessly and needlessly about a lot of stuff, piling adjective upon adjective – there will always be those – there are also a lot of writers, myself included, who enjoy language for its own sake and relish the musicality of the longer sentence. Writing is not only about the destination (accurately conveying meaning) it is also about the journey (the experience of learning).

Small is beautiful

On the whole I agree that technical writing should veer towards conciseness, clarity and simplicity (the personality of the writer is neither here nor there) but in creative fiction the way the words say things matters every bit as much as the message that those words are there to communicate.

There's always a middle ground and I'd like to think that's where you'll find me; I tend towards the loquacious but steer clear of out-and-out verbosity.

In another article, How to Write Concise Sentences, Lenin provides a nice list of examples of words we often use to pad our sentences. Let's have a look at one here:

Using absolutely, totally, completely, etc: Don’t say “something is absolutely excellent”. Using just ‘excellent’ is enough.

Of course he's right. But he is also completely, totally and utterly wrong. That, by the way, is one of my pet interjections – "completely, totally and utterly" – and I enjoy using it. It's like my catchphrase. One of them anyway. It's not enough to say he's wrong here. I want to really emphasise his wrongness and stamp all over it. Or I could have said: "But he is also wrong, w r o n g, capital letters, bold, underscore AND italics." Or what about: "But he is also wrong. You would not believe how wrong he is. On a scale of one to wrong he's so very, very wrong."

Okay, maybe he's not as wrong as all that but you get my point.

To my mind the inclusion of all these adverbs adds colour to the text and English is a very colourful language. But when does it get to be unnecessary?

In his post Power of Short Sentences, Lenin draws our attention to the opening sentence to Oliver Twist:

Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born; on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events; the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.

In other words:

Oliver was born in the workhouse.

And this is exactly how the abridged version of the book on Glyn Hughes' Squashed Writer's site puts it.

But just look at what Dickens does in this sentence. He piles insignificance atop of insignificance. He doesn't even name Oliver who is reduced to an "item of mortality". It is a carefully constructed sentence. Of course it could be broken down into smaller sentences but for whose benefit?

Up till now I feel like I've been slagging off Lenin but I think he's the kind of guy who can take a joke. To redress the balance somewhat if I go right back to the start of his blog, his very first entry has this to say:

When you can write simple sentences, you don’t have to write too simple ones:

Tom is a boy. He wears a sweatshirt. He is 5 feet tall. He is fair. He is handsome. He is running. He is…

Now, that looks ridiculous! How about:

Tom is a fair good-looking boy of five feet, wearing a sweatshirt. He is running.

That’s fine and professional. To me, being professional is being subtle. When you see professionals and amateurs at work, you will know this

See, he's not obsessed with brevity for its own sake.

Let's move the focus away from poor Lenin and look at why people have it in for the longer sentence. Here's an example provided by Ken Macrorie in his book, Telling Writing where he talks about what he calls 'namery' the habit of naming things that do not need naming:

He starts with this example:

Juliet and Rosalind are women who fall in love. This is one of the few similarities between these two characters. They are different in age, with Juliet being an impetuous adolescent and Rosalind being a mature adult. This different is illustrated by the manner in which each character falls in love. Juliet rushes into romance and gets married as quickly as possible while Rosalind makes sure of her love for Orlando--a much more rational and logical choice than Juliet's.

Now, on the surface this doesn't look too cumbersome. The sentences are not obsessively short but just because the component sentences are on the short side doesn't necessarily make it good reading. Macrorie provides a streamlined version and it's worthy of note that he doesn't try and force it all into a single convoluted 'clever' sentence.

One of the few similarities between Juliet and Rosalind is that they both fall in love; but Juliet rushes into romance while Rosalind makes sure of her love for Orlando. Juliet is an impetuous adolescent; Rosalind is a mature adult.

There is of course a problem with short sentences as Emma Darwin points out in her post In praise of the long sentence:

Short sentences don't flow. Yes, the next one may develop it. But at each full stop the reader, well, stops. There are several unfortunate consequences. One: rhythmically and therefore mentally the reader has to start up again each time. They may choose not to. Two: because you can't easily link each sentence grammatically and logically to the next, you're relying on the reader to make the connections: to move the story on, to provide their own profluence. Some will, some won't, but none will do it as well and reliably as when you, the writer, provide it. And Three: it's boring to read/hear for any length of time, just as is a single drum beat instead of the stress and slack, the interlocking rhythms of our human existence.

A similar point is made by Matthew Cheney in his post, In praise of long sentences, where he includes a quote from Joseph Williams's Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, the opening paragraph from his chapter on 'Length':

The ability to write clear, crisp sentences that never go beyond twenty words is a considerable achievement. You'll never confuse a reader with sprawl, wordiness, or muddy abstraction. But if you never write sentences longer than twenty words, you'll be like a pianist who uses only the middle octave: you can carry the tune, but without much variety or range. Every competent writer has to know how to write a concise sentence and how to prune a long one to readable length. But a competent writer must also know how to manage a long sentence gracefully, how to make it as clear and as vigorous as a series of short ones.

The online sentence

The main cry for shorter sentences comes from people involved in writing for the Web, shorter sentences, smaller paragraphs, plain English, lots of white space please. Since more and more people are being drawn to the Internet for information does this mean that what they're going to find has been diluted in some way to support the medium? In his article, Web Writing vs Print Writing, Kerry Redshaw explains the science behind these outrageous demands. In printed material, the brain slows down to string multiple syllables together. On the Web, that comprehension is slowed down by another 25% and with that slow down, we often lose the rhythms of sentences.

The Nielsen Report, which he references, provides some sobering statistics:

  • 79% of users scan the page instead of reading word for word, focusing on headlines, summaries and captions.

  • Only 16% actually read word for word what's on the screen.

  • Web readers are 3 times more likely than newspaper readers to limit in-depth reading to short paragraphs.

  • On the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.

  • Of those Web users who do read the entire page, most only absorb 75% of the content.

It's amazing anything goes in at all.

The most important conclusion was that writing on the Web should be 50% shorter than its paper equivalent simply because people don't read what they find online; they scan it and pick out the interesting bits. So we're advised to keep it simple, succinct and scannable.

Interestingly the turning point in sentence construction happened well before computers, with the inception of the pulp detective novel; at least that is what Otto Penzler suggests in the article Pulp Fiction Murdered Long Sentences:

I think it was really the beginning of a different kind of writing. The kind of writing in the world of literature that everyone had been familiar with was Henry James with long sentences, long paragraphs. And then Ernest Hemingway came along and Dashiell Hammett came along and they started to write short, quick, clipped sentences that didn't require lots and lots of description. The pulps provided the perfect springboard for that literary tone.

Middle ground

The real answer is that there is room for both. If you look at this speech by Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1 (IIiv) we find the character of Falstaff getting more and more long-winded in his sentences. I've reformatted it to make my point:

But to say I know more harm in him than in myself, were to say more than I know.

That he is old, the more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster, that I utterly deny.

If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh's lean kine are to be loved.

No, my good lord; banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry's company, banish not him thy Harry's company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

To which the prince replies:

I do. I will.

Here we have a fine example of two very different kinds of power. And each is appropriate to the character involved.

In my next post we'll have a look at the lengths to which some authors go to demonstrate the effectiveness of the longer sentence and then we'll consider some of the maths behind it all.


Paul Squires said...

Personally I'm a big fan of the long and winding sentence that goes one way and then defies expectation and forces the reader to think. Short sentences are cool for either describing simple ideas or leaving a lot to the imagination. Should we pander to their increasingly short attention spans or take the time and trouble to say it properly? I am always amazed by how you get the topic of discussion Jim and define it so precisely and link it, your blog is a fantastic resource.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you, Paul, and mostly I amaze myself too. I just start off with a sentence and see where it ends up half of the time.

McGuire said...

Excellent post, Jim. I'll be re-reading. I have three recent post where I write incredibly short, concise and precise stories.

I love the Oliver Twist example, so much of old english novels are littered with veribage and long-winded diatribe. It virtually makes you want to put the book down. It's like enduring a rabbiting old women, who simply won't get to the point.

In today's cultural framework, whatever that is, it appears we want to cut off the surplus and simply be fed the meat. But often, in the meandering and dangling of rhetoric, there lies yet more creative possibility.

Dave King said...

Surely the effect you want to convey decides the style you adopt. If you wanrt a staccato effect, like the quick cutting between shots in a film, you will go for short sentences. If you want to ape the pan and merge technique you will go for long sentences and maybe plenty of commas. (My own preference is for punctuating the way I want it to be read, rather than purely syntactically.)

Jim Murdoch said...

My wife recently read Little Dorrit, in preparation for the BBC dramatisation, McGuire, and, every now and then, she'd insist on reading me a clump of words here and there. I have to say none of them were exactly boring but they were convoluted and that was a part of their charm, how to say something simple in the most involved way possible. But a little of that can go a long way and it stops being charming after a while and becomes simply burdensome.

And, Dave, interesting point about how you punctuate. I must bear that in mind the next time I'm a bit quick at criticising one of your poems.

Sorlil said...

Certainly since Pound, brevity in poetry has been all the rage (and for the best).
My favorite novels are the 19th century Russian greats, generally they could never be accused of being brief. I think Victor Hugo must be one of the masters of the long sentence, especially in Les Miserables.

Jim Murdoch said...

I'm afraid, Sorlil that the bulk of my reading has been confined to the 20th century. I know there are great books out there that I'm never going to get round to but I've never been one for reading a book simply because it's great or I should. I read what interests me and I find it harder and harder these days to find things to pique that interest.

Sarah Franco said...

great post!

i love long sentences myself, and my mother tongue, portuguese is particularly appropriate for long sentences.

however, there is now a pressure to lower the standards, and I find myself being accused of elitism because I like long sentences.

once I wrote an academic article and the editor cut many of my sentences, practically killing the text. I was offended because he was calling my readers stupid. I changed it back, except in one or another case so that he couldn't accuse me of lack of good will.

about writing for the internet: as a reader, i scan through a text quickly to see if it's interesting. if it is, I'll either read it if I have time or save it for latter.

if the text is good enough, interesting enough, people will take the time to read it.

now, about short texts, there is an excellent book called One Minute stories, I love it. The author uses short texts and short sentences and it's simply great.

I remember that when I was reading it, i would take the book everywhere and whenever I had a minute, say, on the queue at the supermarket, i would use that minute to read a complete story.

Sorlil said...

Oh Jim, if you've not read Crime and Punishment give it a go, not because it's a classic but because it's a nail-biting, traumatic psychoanalysis of a troubled mind.
The first couple of chapters are a bit on the dry side and all the Russian names take a bit of getting used to but it's well worth persevering and then you get hooked! All depends what you're into, right enough!

Parvez Ahmed said...

"Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow you cataracts and hurricanes, spout till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks! You sulphurous and thought-executing fires, vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts, singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder, strike flat the thick rotundity o' the world! Crack nature's moulds, all germens spill at once that make ingrateful man!" - Shakespeare

I won't say anything more.

Jena Isle said...

This is a very helpful post for writers. There are times that short, precise sentences should be used and when long, wordy ones are appropriate.

Thanks Jim, for sharing with us this vital information.

Happy blogging.

Jim Murdoch said...

Sarah, that's interesting. I'd never really thought about any one language being better suited to long sentences. And you're quite right about reading on the Internet. I too scan documents to see if they're worth investing time in and if they are the length of the sentences is neither here nor there although I do have to say I dislike paragraphs that go one for pages without a break.

Sorlil, I have to admit a bit of curiosity towards Dostoevsky. I enjoyed Kafka and I suspect he might have a similar flavour. At the moment though I'm having a terrible time concentrating. I've never been a quick reader at the best of times and so I've always looked for short texts to give myself a feeling of accomplishment.

On the whole, Parvez, although Shakespeare often feels long-winded I'm not actually convinced that he's especially given to long sentences.

And, Jena, you're so right, there is a time and a place for all kinds of sentences.

Roberta S said...

Hi jim. Just stopped in to tell you 'Dickens is my man and so is Henry James'.

I enjoy wrapping my head around those grand sentences as much as I do the story. These are the ONLY books I can read more than once (which gives accuracy to the theory of music and an enhanced melody). So thank you for defending the justice and beauty (and rhythm) of 'the long sentence'.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Excellent post. I think there is a definite need for a balance. I can love sprawling sentences if there is reason for the sprawl, but my pet hate is the writer who just keeps adding stuff into a sentence, almost as if they don't trust the reader to know what they mean. On the other hand a writer sho only uses short sentences annoys me because there is no flow to that,

Art Durkee said...

Papa Hemingway
got a bum rap for writing
his short sentences

but his sentences in truth
run on and on, lots of "and"s

Art Durkee said...

I'm with Dave on this. I use punctuation in poems like musical notation.

And in all this discussion of sentences, it seems to me that a very useful bit of punctuation that often gets overlooked is the semicolon; it's very useful for a breath-pause, mid-sentence, that pauses the thought but not the run of ideas.

Jim Murdoch said...

I've never read any Dickens, Roberta and I doubt I ever will. I'm so behind on 20th century literature – a line has to be drawn.

Crafty Green Poet, yes, I'm with you there. My wife read a few lines of Little Dorrit out to me last week and immediate response was, "You know he was paid by the word, don't you?" Now, don't get me wrong, it was entertaining but only as a flourish.

And, Art, you will find no objection from me when it comes to the semicolon. I use them often in fact I remember getting into an involved discussion with Carrie in the early days about my insistence on using punctuation in very short poems including semicolons in poems of less than ten lines.

As for Hemmingway, yes, it would be interesting to rewrite a chunk of his stuff to see what it looked like sans 'ands' but maybe not today.

mand said...

Well, in another life i typed site safety reports et al on a construction site, and was known for adding semi-colons where they made more sense. Hail like-minded people!

Jim Murdoch said...

Yep, Mand, that would have been me too I have no doubt.

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