Writing Tip: In Praise of the Long Sentence

I confess that I'm predisposed toward short sentences. Snappy and concise, that's how I like 'em. Fragments? Yes, please. Blame it on my copywriting background, wherein I learned the virtues of brief-and-bouncy. Blame it on conditioning by today's postmodern, sound-bite culture. Whatever its source, an inner voice tells me to keep my sentences concise for the sake of clarity. Not that I always listen. Most of the writers whom I admire don't constrain themselves with a brevity boundary, so why should I? Short sentences are just one tool in a writer's toolkit, not a law with fines imposed if you break it. There are other tools as well, including the long sentence: the way-long, the breathtakingly long sentence; the sentence that stretches majestically like a Great Plains panorama across a vast landscape of clauses and punctuation marks until it arrives at last, dusty from its exertions but still vigorous, at its period. The sentence I just wrote is a piker compared to some. "There's not much to be said about the period except that most writers don't reach it soon enough," says William Zinsser in his classic book, On Writing Well. True enough. Yet in chapter seven of Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark advises writers to "Fear Not the Long Sentence." "Everyone fears the long sentence," writes Clark. "Write what you fear. Until the writer masters the long sentence, she is no writer at all, for while length makes a bad sentence worse, it can make a good sentence better." Garrison Keillor mastered the long sentence long ago. I marvel at some of the chewy constructions that weave through his books. Garrison writes the way he talks. If you want to enjoy his writing to the hilt, imagine him reading it to you in the manner of one of his Prairie Home Companion monologues. Much of Garrison's writing is concise, but the man fears not the long sentence and uses it to brilliant effect. Good writing, like good music, requires a sense of rhythm and space. Short and long sentences offset each other, providing tension and release. Too much of either bores, but the right balance galvanizes and allows writing to breathe. So don't be afraid of the long sentence. Use it judiciously to produce an effect. Use it heedfully, with an awareness of its pitfalls. But do use it.