“A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences,” Strunk and White wrote in their seminal writing guide The Elements of Style in 1959. For the last half century, their philosophy on writing has reigned in newsrooms and classrooms nationwide. Modern sensibilities prefer minimalism to ornamentation: critics praise the muscular prose of Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver; high school teachers plead for their students to strip their sentences of superfluous words and fancy flourishes.
However, in her warm, witty Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, Ursula K. Le Guin revolts against the Strunk and White idea that good sentences are always short sentences. A clean, concise sentence, Guin concedes, can be impactful, especially after a string of elaborate prose. But too many short, Hemingway-esque sentences can start to sound as tiresome as the not-yet-developed thoughts of a five year old. As Guin writes,
“…very short sentences, isolated or in a series, are highly effective in the right place. Prose consisting entirely of short, syntactically simple sentences is monotonous, choppy, irritating. If short-sentence prose goes on very long, whatever its content, the thump-thump beat gives it a false simplicity that soon just sounds stupid. See Spot. See Jane. See Spot bite Jane.”
If we are to seduce our readers, Guin suggests, we must become attuned to the music of language. At the word level, we must choose our words carefully and pay attention to the symphonies they create: the rhythm and cadence of single syllables, the romance of vowels, the flowy, melodious “r,” the harsh, percussive sounds of consonants like “p” and “t.” At the sentence level, we must remember one word: variety. Too many succinct sentences and our writing sounds like it belongs in a newsroom or child’s story; too many fussy, flowery sentences and our readers inevitably get lost in a maze of syntax and have trouble deciphering our meaning. Balance is key.
In his indispensable Murder Your Darlings, Roy Peter Clark complies the collected wisdom of fifty of the best writing books ranging from titans of the genre like William Zinsser and William Strunk to gentle, encouraging voices like Brenda Ueland and Anne Lamott. Murder Your Darlings is like speed dating literature’s most iconic figures: the profile of each book is brief, but immensely instructive. If you’re a professional writer, a diligent wordsmith or just a lover of language, you’ll delight in your dates with these literary legends.
In his chapter on Ursula K. Le Guin, Clark distills Steering the Craft into 4 practical writing tips:
1. Read your drafts…out loud. Pay attention to the sound of your sentences and watch out for passages that have a “monotonous rhythm.”
2. Vary your sentence length. Too many terse sentences one after another? Add a longer sentence to give your writing a more pleasing melody. Too many lengthy, meandering 20 word sentences? Introduce a brief 2 or 4 word sentence for variety. As Janet Fitch once said in “10 Rules for Writers,” switching up your sentence structure will keep your reader from going crosseyed.
3. Be purposeful in your repetition. The rules of the English classroom often take the inviolability of edicts. Avoid the passive voice. Never use “I.” Never end a sentence with a preposition. Despite what stuffy English teachers may have told you, you shouldn’t always avoid repetition. Often times, the most talented literary stylists use repetition to underscore a theme or reveal a message. Take Sylvia Plath’s genius first line from The Bell Jar, her harrowing classic:
After this first image of a pair of Jewish spies being executed in the summer of 1953, the motif of electrocution is repeated throughout the story. Why? Because Ms. Plath was an incompetent hack who was too lazy to vary her word choice? No, Plath intentionally repeats the image of electrocution to foreshadow the novel’s disturbing climax, the protagonist Esther’s botched electro-shock treatment. Bad repetition is a result of oversight or sloppiness. Good repetition serves a purpose.
When a reporter asked the late great Joan Didion why she repeats certain words and phrases, she replied, “I do it to remind the reader to make certain connections. Technically it’s almost a chant. You could read it as an attempt to cast a spell.”
So be a sorcerer of sentences. Feel free to repeat…so long as you’re harnessing the incantatory power of language.
4. This last tip is my favorite. Clark recommends close reading one of your own passages that you think works well. Like Joan Didion who counted the words in Hemingway’s famous opening to Farewell to Arms, you should take a mathematical approach to your analysis: count, literally count, the words in each of your sentences. What do you notice? Most likely, you’ll see that you use a variety of sentences: simple, compound, complex. Some of your sentences will be as condensed as a hurried p.s. at the end of a note; others will seem as epically enormous as a Donna Tartt novel. Next time you go to write, use your passage as a model.