"The long sentence opens the very doors that a short sentence simply slams shut."
January 8, 2012 5:17 AM   Subscribe

"Your sentences are so long," [L.A.Times] The point of the long and winding sentence - Pico Iyer’s essay on why he’s made the conscious decision to write longer sentences.
posted by Fizz (81 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Sentences should vary in structure, size, and shape; that's hard to do if you don't write some long ones.

Writing a long sentence that's readable is a technical challenge; people don't write short sentences because they're internet-damaged, they do it because, unless you're an immensely skilled writer, short sentences gives you a better chance of being understood.

I think one reason people compare John Jeremiah Sullivan and David Foster Wallace is that both can write very long sentences which are somehow as clear at Hemingway.
posted by escabeche at 5:46 AM on January 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

The space between sentences is not a cue to forget what you just read. It's a space. If you're reading out loud, it gives you time to breathe. If you're reading in your head, it does the same thing, but in your head.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:51 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

P.S. It's dangerous to write long sentences. Take this.

posted by LogicalDash at 5:52 AM on January 8, 2012 [38 favorites]

Seems predictable that the lily-livered liberals on Metafilter would come out against mandatory long sentences. Damned words. I say lock 'em up and throw away the period!
posted by yoink at 6:02 AM on January 8, 2012 [6 favorites]

unless you're an immensely skilled writer, short sentences gives you a better chance of being understood.

"Immensely skilled" is an overstatement, since you don't need to be a Dickens in order to understand how to write long sentences that are clear and easy-to-read, because the key is to write conversationally, as we often employ long, compound sentences when we're speaking, though, of course, you shouldn't just transcribe speech onto paper and leave it as is, since writing -- being a slower, more precise form than speaking, gives you the chance to polish and coin memorable phrases that you'd never come up with in the real-time flow of conversation, but you can polish during a rewrite, making your first draft basically speech dumped onto paper, or, at least, you can listen to the way people talk -- noting especially the way they join clauses together -- and use those techniques in prose.

Recommendation: "Building Great Sentences"
posted by grumblebee at 6:03 AM on January 8, 2012 [12 favorites]

posted by orme at 6:09 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

The art of writing – of any communicative medium – is in part that it moves us from the typical and the fleeting and the stale into the realm of the strange, the fresh, the lasting. It is the art of leaving something behind. The challenge is to write something unusual enough to stand out, yet which is still relevant enough and enjoyable enough to be read.

A part of writing well is learning how to express yourself completely and effectively; the other part is largely learning to think subtle, elegant, valuable thoughts. The more complex the idea is, the more challenging it becomes to express it. Long sentences are an especially delightful challenge, because coaxing the reader through your sentence requires a formidable technique, but results in prose that can be close to orgasmic. It's not the only way of expressing something meaningful, of course (I wish some of my fellow college writers understood this), and I don't feel that it dates especially well – as language changes, longer sentences rapidly become too difficult to be worth it for a wide audience – but still, there's such a rush when you start a sentence and find yourself skittering along a journey you weren't expecting to take. Placed properly, and used well, longer sentences are among the greatest joys of being a reader, and of daring to read ambitious things.
posted by Rory Marinich at 6:09 AM on January 8, 2012 [9 favorites]

Also: I predict that this thread shall be great fun, as we each make attempts at sentence-craft, then stand back, and watch which ones crumble under their own weight.
posted by Rory Marinich at 6:13 AM on January 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I was like, Pico Iyer... where have I heard that name before... Oh right, the Awl called him a Huge Troll the other day.

Here's the elegant long sentence of his that really drove them nuts:

"ABOUT a year ago, I flew to Singapore to join the writer Malcolm Gladwell, the fashion designer Marc Ecko and the graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister in addressing a group of advertising people on “Marketing to the Child of Tomorrow.”"

posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:19 AM on January 8, 2012

I prefer shorts.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:20 AM on January 8, 2012

Since my favorite authors usually write with long sentences, I was at first prepared to side with Iyer. But the essay itself, especially in light of its subject matter, only made me overly critical of Iyer's own writing.

A small example of the larger problem:

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).

Why include the parenthetical about the writer exploring the mind and not the mouth? It's completely gratuitous: something you would include in a sentence only to lengthen it, as a joke about lengthy sentences.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:24 AM on January 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

His sentences ARE too long. It comes off as disjointed rambling, even if that's not the intended point.
posted by gjc at 6:27 AM on January 8, 2012

Tolstoy must feel pretty stupid...
posted by Fizz at 6:33 AM on January 8, 2012

I like Iyer's point that a well-written long sentence can take control of your mind, and does it more effectively than a bunch of short sentences.

But that just makes it a tool, and if you strive to use long sentences just for the sake of using long sentences you usually tend towards bombast, and end up using a word like 'rondure', and I end up thinking you're just plain pompous.
posted by benito.strauss at 6:52 AM on January 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

end up using a word like 'rondure'

Abusing a word like 'rondure', I'd have argued. "Round the world's roundness" is actually more pleasing and less affected, if that's really what he wanted to say.
posted by howfar at 6:57 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Previously. Proust's longest sentence is a doozy.
posted by iotic at 7:01 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was like, Pico Iyer... where have I heard that name before... Oh right, the Awl called him a Huge Troll the other day.

I'm totally shocked by this. I've thought Pico Iyer was a brilliant writer ever since I picked up Video Night in Katmandu in S.Korea in 1996. He is amazing at explaining the bridging of east meets west, cultural shifts, and the globalization/personal dislocation aspects of the world.

Sure he has an immensely privileged view and upbringing but I don't think he needs to be called a troll by some 22 year old blogger who stumbled across a piece of his in the times. And the article is actually just saying that some people need a break from their electronics- I was in a restaurant last night, a tiny place in nyc and both tables on either side of me and the people standing at a counter in the back were all on their phones. Together but not.

I can't write like Pico Iyer and I haven't had a fraction of his experiences but he is on no accounts 'a troll'. In fact that word is probably not even part of his vocabulary.

Note: I have no idea who works at The Awl besides Nick Denton? and don't really care. I just want to express my own personal long term admiration for Pico Iyer. And yes, I know this rant isn't even really about his 'long sentences' article but more in response to the troll article.
posted by bquarters at 7:03 AM on January 8, 2012 [9 favorites]

Sure he has an immensely privileged view and upbringing but I don't think he needs to be called a troll by some 22 year old blogger who stumbled across a piece of his in the times.

How dare a 22-year-old blogger call him names! That person has both the wrong age and the wrong profession necessary to be allowed to call him names!
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:06 AM on January 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

Sure he has an immensely privileged view and upbringing but I don't think he needs to be called a troll by some 22 year old blogger who stumbled across a piece of his in the times.

How dare a 22-year-old blogger call him names! That person has both the wrong age and the wrong profession necessary to be allowed to call him names!

Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the internet.
posted by Fizz at 7:08 AM on January 8, 2012 [20 favorites]

Never use a long sentence when a diminutive candidate solution will suffice to impart its fundamental meaning and succeed at achieving its intended effect.
posted by sidereal at 7:16 AM on January 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

22 year old bloggers can say what they want (and I just looked up the author he's actually much older) but I don't want to give them any more credence than they deserve.

PS I'm female and I don't fight on the internet or anywhere else. I express my opinion and then run away!
posted by bquarters at 7:18 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, I'm currently reading Umberto Eco's The Prague Cemetery, and boy oh boy you'd better bring some sustained attention skills when reading him.
posted by sidereal at 7:21 AM on January 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

22 year old bloggers can say what they want

And they often make use of that permission! Occasionally, to good effect.

I am in the camp that says varied sentences (length, structure, etc) are the essences of good writing. There are times to write short, simple sentences and times to write longer or more complex ones. I am overly fond of the parenthetical statement, and my use of dashes might be considered criminal in a less permissive age (to say nothing of the interjection set off by commas), but, hey, it's what I do.

Using obscure words just to be obscure, on the other hand, is mere self-indulgence.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:27 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Long sentences remind me of older literature---it seems the prevailing style in the late 19th Century involved all kinds of florid purple prose. Every description was effusive and overflowing, and sentences would meander beautifully from clause to clause. Today's writing is more Twitter-pated, with ideas condensed into short and understandable sentences.

I think this probably reflects changes in entertainment technology, more than anything else. In addition to being repositories of information, books and serials(!) were also meant for pure entertainment! Before radio or television, the broadcast medium of choice was the written word. Long sentences were like special effects! The medium, in large part, was the message.

Now, the written word is used for academic articles, news stories, blogs, or chat conversations---all of which benefit from having short and distilled ideas in clearly-written sentences. This is language used as a technology to communicate formal ideas, not for crafting immersive fictional experiences. Nowadays, the message is the message, and the prose is the vehicle.
posted by phenylphenol at 7:32 AM on January 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Generalizations are general!
posted by phenylphenol at 7:32 AM on January 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I never write a lengthy sentence just because I'm in the mood to, or because I think that I need to vary things up. I just like to keep all my related thoughts in one container, even if that means having to use a bigger container.

It once took me 56 words to identify a particular sound I was referring to, but I didn't see any shorter way of covering the ground.
posted by Trurl at 7:43 AM on January 8, 2012

"Troll" means "anyone I don't like", at this point?
posted by thelonius at 7:44 AM on January 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

This kind of debate only occurs because Steve Jobs never got around to setting a default sentence length.
posted by srboisvert at 7:44 AM on January 8, 2012 [6 favorites]

Sentences, like paragraphs, are getting shorter because of changes over time in technology and ways in which we communicate...from 18th century long sentences and paragraphs (Sam Johnson)
through H. James ...but as Edmund Wilson (wrote long ones) noted, prose style began to change in the US because of telegraph and Mark Twain.

Now we hab e blogs and twitter and texting: all demand short and snappy statements, and this spill over into other writing...journalism reflects this too.

But more to the point, we have two extremes--Hemingway and James. Both are "right" for what they do. Poetry: Whitman and Dickinson--again, both right for what they do.
as Marshall Mcluhan noted: the medium is the message and thus our minds are adjusting to the newer forms of writing, technology, and understanding.
posted by Postroad at 7:45 AM on January 8, 2012

Setting out with the intention of writing a long sentence for the sake of it being a long sentence seems like a bad idea. Occasionally they unfold while writing to beautiful effect, but usually when I notice a long sentence it appears to be a poor or lazy writing decision rather than a well crafted way of communicating.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 7:47 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

One of Harold Innis's primary contributions to the field of communications was to apply the dimensions of time and space to various media. He divided media into time-biased and space-biased types. Time-biased media include clay or stone tablets, hand-copied manuscripts on parchment or vellum and oral sources such as Homer's epic poems. These are intended to carry stories and messages that last for many generations, but tend to reach limited audiences. Space-biased media are more ephemeral. They include modern media such as radio, television, and mass circulation newspapers that convey information to many people over long distances, but have short exposure times. While time-biased media favour stability, community, tradition and religion, space-biased media facilitate rapid change, materialism, secularism and empire.

Innis wrote that the interplay between knowledge and power was always a crucial factor in understanding empire: "The sword and pen worked together. Power was increased by concentration in a few hands, specialization of function was enforced, and scribes with leisure to keep and study records contributed to the advancement of knowledge and thought. The written record, signed, sealed and swiftly transmitted was essential to military power and the extension of government."
Improvements in communication...make for increased difficulties of understanding.—Harold Innis, The Bias of Communication
Miss Barkley was quite tall, She wore what seemed to be a nurse's uniform, was blonde and had a tawny skin and gray eyes, I thought she was very beautiful, there were racks of rockets standing to be touched off to call for help from the artillery or to signal with if the telephone wires were to be cut; I kissed her and saw that her eyes were shut, I kissed both her shut eyes, I thought she was probably a little crazy, It was all right if she was, I did not care what I was getting into, this was better than going every evening to the house for officers where the girls climbed all over you and put your cap on backwards as a sign of affection between their trips upstairs with other officers.
-An experiment I just did in literary mashups; What if Hemingway and Garcia Marques accidentally the whole thing... (spoiler, it is still great stuff).
I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it under water for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg.
A frequently asked question is, "What percent of our communication is nonverbal?" According to Kramer, "94% of our communication is nonverbal, Jerry" (Seinfeld, January 29, 1998). Kramer's estimate (like the statistics of anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell [65%; Knapp 1972] and of psychologist Albert Mehrabian [93%; 1971]) are hard to verify. But the proportion of our emotional communication that is expressed apart from words surely exceeds 99%. (See below, Media.)

Live on, anti-short-sentence-resistance, free now your fleeting thoughts as written words, speak your heart in protracted participles, try to not balk at, or stifle any old steps outside the well-regulated rules of writing, butt also be aware not to simplistically "break" imaginary rules with a grand dream of getting a label like "writing rules breaker", writing is more like painting, than speaking (painterly:writerly), anti-art is absolutely art, but keep in mind that not all anti-art succeeds in channelling an intended message; so long as the message is not massacred, the metaphors left un-tortured, and the truth left un-twisted [Sadly plaudits go to those who most fully force felicitation by the richest of florid falsifications, embezzling truth in the name of artifice])... write as you think, as you thunk, or at peace, as you one day hope to think, if need be, as you speak, just write in as many manners as possible. But forget not that writing is ultimately simply aping the adaptive symbiotic techniques of non-verbal, and vocalized communication signals. Writing is not immediate, it is composed, like music, or a drawn composition, each word, like a shape on a canvas, placed for the purpose of embedding a message, and creating a new reality. Using the technologies of writing, trace it to the roots, it is a method of tallying crops, and subjects of the state, calculating debts, tithes, and regulating society (to the point of being buried under more laws and regulations than any average person (who is subject to these laws) could realistically ever read, or even begin to hope to process and understand. Writing is inherently (by the roots, and tradition, and contiguous historical usage) an authoritarian system of uni-directional communication, subject to the inherent limitations of any 'delayed' communication; writing is art, not speech. Not communication. Or at best, most forcefully utilized when treated as such.

Writing goes one way, it is not communication. It can approach the ideal of communication, with new revolutions of technology, as the delivery of mail by horsemen, then trains, then sped up with electronic signals, television, radio... the web... we are coming closer to the realization of writing as a human multi-party communication technique, but it is useful to get reminders that we are not there. Yet.

Any writing is artifice... do what makes you happy, what satisfies, or fulfills you as a writer. A person. Don't write long sentences for the sake of long sentences. Write them because they are what your mind thinks in, or write them not at all. Or write them sometimes.

tl:dr, If you must write. Long sentences always. Lest you be'a monster.
tl:dr, you must write short sentences always, or else you are a florid monster.
Is it waiting "For" Godot? As in, in his service, or, as a surrogate, in his place? Or; is it Waiting for Godot (to arrive).
posted by infinite intimation at 7:58 AM on January 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

posted by Benjy at 7:59 AM on January 8, 2012

Sentences, like paragraphs, are getting shorter because of changes over time in technology and ways in which we communicate...from 18th century long sentences and paragraphs (Sam Johnson)

It's somewhat ironic, though, that as technological advances increase the speed with which we can write and transmit writing, that prose should become more (literally) telegraphic, instead of lengthier and more elaborate. The discursive sentences of Dickens and Thackeray and Melville and Alcott were written slowly, by hand, using ink pens that needed frequent trimming and refilling or pencils that needed regular sharpening. Now we have the means of generating many, many more words in a shorter time frame. And what do we do with that ability? Not write more - write less. If Dickens had a word processor, what would his sentences look like? If Melville could do his own cutting and pasting on a screen instead of having his daughter painstakingly read, discuss, cut apart and re-pin his pages together in the new order, what would be the result? Perhaps it's that, being able to generate more words more quickly, we expect words and ideas to be refreshed more quickly. Weekly papers became daily, and then daily papers become on-the-hour dispatches online in a rolling cycle we expect to be refreshed with every punch of the reload button. We are relishing novelty and speed, but perhaps not so much craft.

Loved this piece. I am a huge fan of the long, well-crafted sentence, and read a lot of nineteenth-century literature in which it's often the default mode. THere's much about the humor of a Mark Twain or Melville that depends on the rambling, slow path to a punchy reveal at the end. That said, there is plenty of writing that's verbose but not interesting. I don't think that's what Iyer's praising. In my work I edit a lot of museum labels, and I'm always all "short declarative sentences please!" because curators tend to write long, multiply claused, discursive essays where you really want 30 seconds of readability. Format matters.

But it's true that we should still be able to navigate more complex prose, and still be able to relish it, when it's done well. Not every communication format is suited for it, but the long-form article, the novel, even the MetaFilter comment, are all fine places for long sentences to appear. I would be sorry to lose the ability to enjoy complex sentences.
posted by Miko at 8:01 AM on January 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

Note: There is a meaningful difference between a long, complicated sentence and a run-on sentence.
posted by Miko at 8:05 AM on January 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Which is to say, thank you for sharing this interesting piece.
(Ybrevity:soul:wit) X (xlength:heart:Wisdom)=
Solve for X and y.
posted by infinite intimation at 8:06 AM on January 8, 2012

Hey guys, I'm pretty sure that 22 year old blogger is actually one of mefi's own. A lady would never ask his age.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 8:13 AM on January 8, 2012

My favorite long sentence from literature. (Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry) (top this, brevophiles)

It is a light blue moonless summer evening, but late, perhaps ten o’clock, with Venus burning hard in daylight, so we are certainly somewhere far north, and standing on this balcony, when from beyond along the coast comes the gathering thunder of a long many-engineered freight train, thunder because though we are separated by this wide strip of water from it, the train is rolling eastward and the changing wind veers for a moment from an easterly quarter, and we face east, like Swedenborg’s angels, under a sky clear save where far to the northeast over distant mountains whose purple has faded lies a mass of almost pure white clouds, suddenly, as by a light in an alabaster lamp, illumined from within by gold lightning, yet you can hear no thunder, only the roar of the great train with its engines and its wide shunting echoes as it advances from the hills into the mountains: and then all at once a fishing boat with tall gear comes running round the point like a white giraffe, very swift and stately, leaving directly behind it a long silver scalloped rim of wake, not visibly moving inshore, but now stealing ponderously beachward toward us, this scrolled silver rim of wash striking the shore first in the distance, then spreading all along the curve of the beach, while the floats, for these are timber driving floats, are swayed together, everything jostled and beautifully ruffled and stirred and tormented in this rolling sleeked silver, then little by little calm again, and you see the reflection of the remote white thunderclouds in the water, and now the lightening within the white clouds in deep water, as the fishing boat itself with a golden scroll of travelling light in its silver wake beside it reflected from the cabin vanishes round the headland, silence, and then again, within the white white distant alabaster thunderclouds beyond the mountains, the thunderless gold lightening in the blue evening, unearthly.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 8:21 AM on January 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Ahaha I'm not a writer or a fan of any writers in particular but I am fond of writing that lends itself to post-modernification. I agree with The Awl on Pico Iyer; his stuff could be read as the subtlest of trolling for the truly jaded and this potential evokes satire. Satire is honourable trolling.
posted by vicx at 8:25 AM on January 8, 2012

I don't think complex sentences are a lost art. They're not much used on Twitter, for good reason; nor in SMS texting, though that's a technical limitation that doesn't affect many people anymore; nor in other forms of nigh-instant communication, for much the same reason that complex sentences are rare in spoken conversation. They are quite common on MetaFilter, LiveJournal, and possibly email, if you bother to send actual personal emails anymore. They are not fashionable, whereas Tweets are, so Pico sees them as a threat, for much the same reasons Goths see Emos as threats, leading to riots in Mexico. But I don't think long sentences are going anywhere. Goths, neither.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:28 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

The first post nailed it: Sentences should vary in structure, size, and shape; that's hard to do if you don't write some long ones. The art of writing is like the art of music, not coincidental, as writing has grown from speech.

A young jazzbo who plays nothing but flurries of notes for his allotted 16 bars eventually grows up and appreciates the space between the notes, and learns the impact of alternating those sheets of sound with a single well placed note or phrase.

But it's not all about rhythm. A long sentence allows the writer to subordinate one idea to another, or to lead a reader (as Iyer points out) along a slower paced discursive train of thought. I'm not sure that anything has changed substantially in my brain since the days when the editing cuts were slower and the sound bites longer, but it is true that the long sentences of the past are the exception, not the rule, these days. By the way, I can't stand Henry James either.
posted by kozad at 8:32 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Short sentences Yoda spoke. Understood easily was he.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:35 AM on January 8, 2012

"Troll" means "anyone I don't like", at this point?

Maybe this is an emerging cultural thing but I'd hazard that you can invoke "Troll" as a compliment just as readily as using it as an Ad hominem attack. The pertinent observation in this instance is that if trolling is an artform, the statement "Trolling, you are doing it wrong" is a valid literary critique.
posted by vicx at 8:41 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Proust wrote very very long sentences--gorgeous ...Hemingway wrote very very short sentenced--gorgeous. Important also to separate fiction writing from non-fiction writing in this sort of discussion since this distinction matters
posted by Postroad at 8:55 AM on January 8, 2012

I quite enjoy the writings of Pico Iyer, and agree that modern written language would do well with more nuance and shading; these qualities, however, are not derived from sentence length. Length for the sake of length is a cargo cult proposition: the idea that the two will fall gracefully, effortlessly, on a sentence long enough to contain them.
posted by flippant at 8:57 AM on January 8, 2012

"who works at The Awl besides Nick Denton?"

As was pointed out, the Awl isn't a Gawker site, it's pretty highbrow and even handed with it's critique usually. "Trolling" in this case, means "Being deliberately provocative" and the Awl author made a point of saying Iyer isn't being a prat on purpose.

I liked this piece about long sentences a bit, though not sure what the point is other than 'Long Sentence Good, Me Write Good' and would like to check out his travel writing, but still, that NYT piece was utterly pretentious humblebrag poo.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:59 AM on January 8, 2012

What does Iyer's family background have to do with his prose style?
posted by Ideefixe at 9:10 AM on January 8, 2012

Can we please get rid of this nonsensical idea that back in the quill-pen era everyone wrote long flowing sentences? As a counter-example I give you the opening of the Book of Genesis from Coverdale's Bible:

And God sayde: let there be light, and there was light. And God sawe the light that it was good. Then God devyded the light from the darcknes, and called the light, Daye: and the darcknes, Night. Then of the evenynge and mornynge was made the first daye.

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century prose can sometimes sound startlingly modern. But there have always been different ways to write, different prose styles to choose from, and the idea that quill pens => long sentences, whereas word processors => short sentences, is manifestly incorrect. Sentence structure isn't just a product of writing technology.
posted by verstegan at 9:14 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

You can also use long sentences to make yourself hard to quote:
This structure which is present in every artistic genre, and has been for a long time, today tends to work as a mental structure, organizing the production and perception of products: the opposition between art and money (the "commercial") is the generating principle of most of the judgments which, in matters of theatre, cinema, painting, literature, claim to establish the frontier between what is art and what is not, between "bourgeois" art and "intellectual" art, between "traditional" art and "avant-garde" art.
(from Pierre Bourdieu, Les règles de l'art, free translation)
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:23 AM on January 8, 2012

Not in a 1:1 manner, no. But there very much is a connection, and shifting relationship between content and container, medium and message. Some communication scholars even posit that they are one and the same.

To example (and there are many others beyond): writing in the medium of twitter is, by definition, restricted in possible length. This imposed set of restrictions alters the outcome. Alters the behavior of the writer within that medium. Television writers must fit their message into the form of the television programming hour... set breaks, at set intervals, tell me this doesn't shift pacing, flow and story dynamics to fit within specific boundaries. That is an artificial, or imposed restriction, those clay tablets have physical restrictions, not all word processors had dynamic formatting, so people shifted their writing to use technique to overcome, or to express what formatting now tells us, formatting is to writing what "non-verbal" techniques used in face to face communication).
posted by infinite intimation at 9:26 AM on January 8, 2012

posted by flabdablet at 9:29 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Jesus wept.
posted by iotic at 9:29 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ideefixe, what does effect does Irvine Welsh's background have on his writing? Stephen King? James Joyce? Hemmingway? Dickens? The Bronte sisters?

You honestly don't think there is a connection between a person's cultural identity, family relations, sometimes geographic location, and educational background that comes through in an indivual's writing style?

Pico Iyer is from an Indian family but grew up in California while attending British boarding schools. And later Cambridge (I think). His identity is that of an outside observer and global citizen. He now lives in a small village in Japan (as far as I know). These events shape a person and their writing, how could they not?

(Where would Frank McCourt be if it wasn't for his 'miserable childhood'? Ok that was facetious.)
posted by bquarters at 9:52 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just came here to say what bquarters did -- Pico Iyer is a brilliant writer, whatever your opinion of his views on technology and long sentences -- and I want to shake that Awl writer for his quick, ignorant dismissal of him based on one New York Times piece.
posted by peacheater at 9:56 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

My English sentences became longer, I believe, after years of studying German, which accustomed me to finding most of the verbs in a sentence at the end of it.

(I'd like to see a comparative study of eye movement between those reading English passages and those reading German passages: I predict the eyes of German-readers move right-to-left more frequently.)

German words are famously long, and the grammar notoriously labyrinthine, but I wonder if "length" really matters when the same idea is expressed.

I can write a short sentence in English and say something with it.

"Ich kann einen kurzen Satz auf Deutsch schreiben und etwas damit sagen."

Is the second sentence only trivially longer, in that it occupies more space?
posted by edguardo at 9:58 AM on January 8, 2012

Interesting that Iyer mentions James Salter. I'm reading A Sport and a Pastime right now and it's riddled with run-on sentences. His writing style is so self-aware it regularly distracts from the story.
posted by stopgap at 10:01 AM on January 8, 2012

Like Malcolm Lowry, quoted unthread, Thomas Pynchon is also a great spinner of long sentences, often a lot clauses strung together with commas.
posted by beagle at 10:40 AM on January 8, 2012

I'm often interested to see how in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, not only were sentences often longer, but arguments were longer. You often see a huge amount of space devoted to establishing premises, offering analogues and comparitives, considering hypotheticals, and other rambly techniques.
posted by Miko at 10:51 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

'Short sentences are good' is very much a mantra in marketing copywriting. If I write a sentence more then two clauses long, and more than around 14 words long, I'll get a 'break up sentence' comment no matter the merits of the sentence itself.

It does mean that, for better or worse, a generation is growing up using staccato marketing speak. It might be something that will pass, however.
posted by Summer at 11:06 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

The attraction of the short sentence is its power: Jab! Jab! Uppercut! Short sentences are boxing. They deliver blow after blow. A string of them is unrelenting. A writer assaulting you with words. For this reason, they are popular - and not undeservedly.

But if the good short sentence is a punch, then a good long sentence is an old Castillian swordman, lifting his foil once more and never taking his eyes off you, eyes not straying to his cup of good brandy which he had planned to enjoy at this time but which he cannot drink because you are the sole thing to which he must currently attend. Each word is a footstep in his destrezan advance, each fragment part of his diagonal strategy; he strays from the direct line because he must circle you to make his point, and his point is the tip of a blade which will, all in good time, find the heart of a vicious brandy-delayer.

(Some writers believe
we must leave Western rhythms
and look to the East)

And then there are



and force them to do our will.

The moral of all this is that Batman would probably be an excellent novelist.
posted by mightygodking at 11:19 AM on January 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

It really depends on what the meaning or meanings one wishes to convey are. If there are a lot of tightly interrelated concepts, it may be appropriate to use a longer sentence with a lot of dependent clauses and even parenthetical remarks. But even then it may be possible to convey the interrelationships while employing periods rather than semicolons. The clarity of the reader's comprehension is important, but since that is not entirely a function of the author's style (readers vary greatly in their abilities to grasp complex interrelationships; do we want to just write for the lowest common denominator?), I think it's hard to just declare an overarching rule to be applied (e.g., "no semicolons", as I've seen before), as such a rule can become a Procrustean bed on which to torture one's intended meaning. (You see what I did there.)

But it is important for writers to continually question their formal & stylistic decisions, and, since they can't necessarily have enough perspective on themselves, to enlist the critical eyes of qualified others. This is why behind many a successful writer stands an often unheralded good editor, be they professional or simply a smart spouse or other intimate.

More than a decade ago, some friends and I were joking about this long sentence problem in an email thread. I wrote:

Ah, yes- compound sentence disorder, parenthetical remark disorder...

I, too, suffer from those maladies (and aren't they both just aspects of one Grand Mal de Cogito), wherein one's thoughts spin out in ever more elaborate tangential and explanatory curlicues whenever one puts pen to paper (or digits to keyboard - or voice to speech-recognition microphone, for that matter), and thus am constantly confronted with the dismaying fact that I've written not merely a sentence, but an entirely self-contained paragraph.

("Take two Hemingways and a Chicago Manual of Style and call me in the morning.")

Re Gurdjieff's astoundingly baroque writing style (with which I'm quite familiar, having read most of his stuff in my younger years, and having a branch of my family - a couple of great-aunts and their progeny - heavily involved in the Work, as they call it), someone once remarked that he was quite terse when speaking aloud, and that it was only in his writing that his "Oriental" elaborative tendencies came out.
posted by Philofacts at 11:44 AM on January 8, 2012

I've just started reading Johanna Skibsrud's "The Sentimentalists." The book won the Giller Prize last year, but man, you want to talk about long, meandering "what-the-hell-were-we-talking-about-again" sentences. I've never seen so many commas.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 12:26 PM on January 8, 2012

Virginia Woolf, from "On Being Ill":
Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist's arm-chair and confuse his "Rinse the mouth—rinse the mouth" with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heavens to welcome—when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.
I love this, and I love Woolf, and I love that she can write a 180+ word sentence that coheres, is evocative, fluid, and does not require one to go back and reread in order to understand what was said.

Here's another one, a 260-odd word sentence from To the Lighthouse:
The gruff murmur, irregularly broken by the taking out of pipes and the putting in of pipes which had kept on assuring her, though she could not hear what was said (as she sat in the window which opened on the terrace), that the men were happily talking; this sound, which had lasted now half an hour and had taken its place soothingly in the scale of sounds pressing on top of her, such as the tap of balls upon bats, the sharp, sudden bark now and then, "How's that? How's that?" of the children playing cricket, had ceased; so that the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts and seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again as she sat with the children the words of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, "I am guarding you--I am your support," but at other times suddenly and unexpectedly, especially when her mind raised itself slightly from the task actually in hand, had no such kindly meaning, but like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life, made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea, and warned her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another that it was all ephemeral as a rainbow--this sound which had been obscured and concealed under the other sounds suddenly thundered hollow in her ears and made her look up with an impulse of terror.
See? She's amazing.
posted by exlotuseater at 12:40 PM on January 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

I love this, and I love Woolf, and I love that she can write a 180+ word sentence that coheres, is evocative, fluid, and does not require one to go back and reread in order to understand what was said.

The coherency of sentences like that is in the eye of the reader, I think. I tried to read Mrs. Dalloway and gave up very quickly because I found Woolf's prose style impenetrable.
posted by girih knot at 12:48 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

girih knot, Fair enough. Have you tried TtL? It is arguably easier.
posted by exlotuseater at 12:50 PM on January 8, 2012

David Foster Wallace... can write very long sentences which are somehow as clear at Hemingway.

Maybe it's too early in the morning for me today, or maybe I got lost in your clauses (it's so easy to glide over those expected only to trip over those not), but leaving apart the issue of can versus could, and all it entails w/r/t matters of life and death and authorship and whatnot, I do believe that you have just claimed Wallace's sentences are somehow as clear as Hemingway (by which I presume you mean Hemingway's sentences, and not the man himself, who was by all accounts as opaque in his linen-suited corporate nature as any such Man in Havana, and yes, I'm sure Graham Greene wouldn't have minded the company) which to me seems rather far from the mark, at least based on a number of experiences in my own small life, both painful and humorous, in which while reading I have grown dizzy and found a need to pause, flip back two pages in some sixteen-pound book or other, and restart, a few minutes after which I once again become confused, sigh, curse to myself, and flip back six pages (this time) to start over again, and it's only on this final reading (the third, it appears) that I manage to unpack what I really hope is a meaningful fraction of the weight of what the esteemed Mr. W's point was, or may have been, anyway, since stretched as it was across a much wider expanse of text than my poor little head can easily contain in a single pass, it's quite possible his was a different point altogether, and it's really just too early in the morning, anyway.
posted by rokusan at 12:51 PM on January 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

According to the link:
Pico Iyer says writing longer phrases is a way to protest the speed of information bites people are subjected to each day.

And now I have the nerve to ask whether I should read any further, since I'm in a bit of a hurry.
posted by Obscure Reference at 12:55 PM on January 8, 2012

I got into a little trouble with my editors at a certain major media website (Hi Gael!) for my relatively long (for an internet article) sentences (I also took some grief for using too many parenthetical interjections). I considered it part of my 'distinct style', but it was mostly a device for forcing readers into holding two or three ideas together in their minds, often for the purpose of humor, or at least mild irony, and the idea of making the audience 'work for it' to get the entire package of meaning was an obvious manipulative device, while the idea that it added a little intellectual value to the process of writing about television, especially the mislabeled "reality TV", was appealing if a bit disingenous, even if the payoff was a low-humor pun, which my editors considered a big bother about "Big Brother". Still, when writing a 1000 word piece, including over 100 of those words in a single sentence (as I did in the preceding sentence), made me smile.
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:59 PM on January 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

Writing long sentences, and multi-inch paragraphs is risky business. Before the whimsy of Twitter's parameter, there was television with sound bites and breaks 'for a word from our sponsors'. The hurried masses will tend to skip and skim.
posted by Cranberry at 1:27 PM on January 8, 2012

So much of what this is all about is discussed in Nicholas Carr's The Shallows...the oral tradition>>written tradition>:printing press>>tv, radio>>internet, electronics and the evolution and the reshaping of our brains to deal with recent changes, including how andwhy and what we currently read.
posted by Postroad at 1:41 PM on January 8, 2012

exlotuseater - I think modern editors would put some full stops after many of those VW clauses and make them separate sentences.
posted by Summer at 1:48 PM on January 8, 2012

Me Whee.
posted by pianomover at 3:00 PM on January 8, 2012

Summer--yes, and I do copyediting . . . and I would certainly break them up, but I still maintain that long--indeed, very long--sentences can still be elegant and deft when crafted intentionally.
posted by exlotuseater at 3:02 PM on January 8, 2012

rokusan, well-played.
posted by exlotuseater at 3:03 PM on January 8, 2012

Amen! Also: "twitterpated". Very good. Short sentences certainly do have their place, but they should have reasons for being used, not simply be the default style.

Going beyond the protest that writing long sentences for the sake of writing long sentences is a bad idea, well yes, of course, if that is the only reason and especially if not well done (although I think there is a certain amount of delightful, slightly self-conscious, and quite forgiveable "see what I can do", as long as it demonstrates in some way that the sentence is actually richer for not being split up and is artfully constructed - kind of in the same way that singers, mucians, dancers, and other artists "show off"), but that is not really what is meant here: besides allowing for more complexity, subtlety, and richness of thought, they are a wonderful antidote to the ever-increasing attention-deficit-addled epedemic that seems to the price of living today; but the biggest problems are that, one, people don't want to take time to read lengthy sentence constructions or are not able to understand them, and two, the majority of people, even if they try, will only string together a series of run-on fragments, the rules for punctuation seeming to have been mostly lost along with appreciation for depth and meaning, all sacrificed in the interest of time and instant gratification (okay, I don't mean to end on an rant about kids these days, it just seems that besides being worthy of appreciation, lengthier sentences seem to be in need of defence).
posted by blue shadows at 5:55 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I tend to write long sentences.

It's the way my head works, in a series of collapsing and expanding tangents, with asides and detours that dance along the lines, chasing the fluttering spark of the idea I'm trying to turn from a daydream into a chain of sound, expressed in symbols, that may just infect someone else with my own fixations and interpretations. When I've tried to have a "style," or a conscious pattern of literary affect, I drafted beautiful, dead-eyed homunculi—fully dressed mannequin players in an ornate stage set of frozen existence—but it was all sound and fury, something like the lush flourishes of Liberace's hands at the keys, but without the music or the loving emotional embrace of whole legions of fanatical old women blowing tearful air kisses just after the last bow.

"Why are all your sentences like telegrams?" I asked of my problematic love near the start of a disastrous decade, examining his rough drafts from the comfort of his couch, where I clicked through the pages while the TV blared and a pair of fingertips followed a glorious path through the hair on the back of my head. "This is like Hemingway," I said, and wrinkled my nose.

"Well, I was doing that."


"I like how to-the-point his stuff is."

"But you're not telling his story, and your story deserves more air. Especially this—" I said, reading a clipped sentence aloud that described a painful moment anticipating a worse one. "This needs to be drawn out. It needs to be alive, so when you get here—that sentence fragment feels like a jagged spike of ice hammered into the reader's heart. The whole point of writing this is to take them there."

I'm referring to a single descriptive moment, when he described the absurd lightning bolt of a detail that burned a sizzling brand into his brain on the morning when he woke and found that the love of his life had died in the night without warning. Here, getting into florid, ornamental detail in describing livor mortis has nothing on a slack-jawed fragment, delivered with a deathly stillness, like it was in that place on that morning, when he stood at the end of a world.

The purple.

When we try to write, we usually don't write as well as we write when it just happens because there's a story tearing its own way out, shredding the folds and fibers of our brains, and when the choice is to dig into the keys to clear the congestion or to surrender even further to blankness and alienation. For me, when this happens I hardly know what I'm doing, just battering the third keyboard I've worn out on this computer in a frantic outburst of compressed, explosive text foaming out of the aether in the roaring chemical reaction of phase change—deep waters suddenly boiling into vapor with a shriek that rattles the bones.

We worry too much about audience, I think. I'm one to talk, littering this forum with my own rambling, semi-comprehensible epic comments in the few years I've been writing here, but I love the way metafilter works like a sort of gestalt nervous breakdown tangled up with a sort of freewheeling show-and-tell session in a school for complicated children, and so I run wild, assuming that those who find me insufferable for many very rational reasons will know to just scroll-scroll-scroll back into more coherent territory when encountering yet another of my sideways lurches around a topic.

What we should do is immaterial. There's a should in business, and in salesmanship, but there's no should in matters of all the little lies we use to tell the truth. When it comes to the joyous play and synaethesis exploration that our mongrel tongue allows with its various cultural appropriations and assorted perversities, though, I think writers just need to strip naked and run, finding out how long and how lilting, lurching, and tortured our words can be and still tell our stories, with nothing but the reader to tell us if we're doing it right.

For me, editing is about stamping out the plague of commas that end up where they are because writing is like speaking, and I speak with a lot of those little pauses, but my sentences stay long when being long lets them breathe, and turn short when short is best. We live under the spell of brevity, but it's not a joyous brevity, not the kind of brevity that Wodehouse used like brush strokes in Sumi-e, or even the intense simplicity of Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River," so I'll have to forgive the excesses of anyone who stands up against the ravening dullness of our microfictional lives to tell the tales that can't be tweeted. Too many people took Strunk & White too literally, but there's room for all of us.

Beyond the cultural realm, though, we still have to dance to the tune that's playing in our own heads for as long as we can and with as much grace as we can muster, and everyone's got their own tempo and time to meet.
posted by sonascope at 7:20 PM on January 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

What we should do is immaterial

but my sentences stay long when being long lets them breathe, and turn short when short is best

"Best" is material, but "should" is not. There's some important distinction there, and you haven't made it.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:55 PM on January 8, 2012

"Should" is imposed. "Best" is functional.
posted by sonascope at 8:06 PM on January 8, 2012

It isn't the length of the sentence, it's the rhythm of the overall writing.
posted by BlueHorse at 11:01 PM on January 8, 2012

Summer--yes, and I do copyediting . . . and I would certainly break them up, but I still maintain that long--indeed, very long--sentences can still be elegant and deft when crafted intentionally.

I have no argument with you there.
posted by Summer at 2:13 AM on January 9, 2012

Function is imposed. The story requires such-and-such a function because I say so.
posted by LogicalDash at 2:24 AM on January 9, 2012

"All around us the bodies rose out of the stone, crowded into groups, intertwined, or shattered into fragments, hinting at their shapes with a torso, a propped-up arm, a burst hip, a scabbed shard, always in warlike gestures, dodging, rebounding, attacking, shielding themselves, stretched high or crooked, some of them snuffed out, but with a freestanding, forward-pressing foot, a twisted back, the contour of a calf harnessed into a common single motion."
posted by outlandishmarxist at 10:18 AM on January 10, 2012

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