Shorter Isn’t Always Better by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
The other day I was going over some editorial corrections/suggestions sent by my editor, who was concerned that I was using too many long sentences with too many subordinate clauses. As I’ve always said, when an editor has concerns, a writer needs to listen, although sometimes what concerns the editor is only a symptom, not necessarily the cause. But I liked some of those sentences.
Still, I broke them up into smaller sizes… and then I realized something. Longer sentences, properly written, convey more information in fewer words than a series of short and direct sentences.
I recall that one of the ancient Roman writers apologized in a letter for its length because he hadn’t the time to make it shorter. Most people who cite this or similar observations miss the point. Making it shorter doesn’t mean breaking things up into little pieces, but rather making the sentences precise and as concise as possible in order to convey the information or feelings without unnecessary wordage.
Some people have difficulty reading long sentences, for various reasons. That, I understand. But… the danger in writing short sentences is that the paragraphs become jerky, and in a novel that can be even more distracting than long sentences. So, reluctantly, I aim for the middle, despite the fact that I believe longer sentences are not only more efficient, but also more elegant.
Are there times for shorter sentences? Absolutely, particularly if you’re writing a first grade primer, or a manual for employees or others with short attention spans and/or less than exemplary vocabularies. They’re also best for political slogans to stir up prejudices. And they’re often necessary for superiors who refuse to spend more than thirty seconds considering anything. Necessary, but not better, especially since condensation of complex issues often results in short-term actions that lead to longer-term disaster.
And, of course, short sentences are vital for misleading tweets… and demagogues who rely on simplistics to gloss over what they don’t understand or don’t want others to understand.
All of which is why I’m often skeptical of anyone, including editors, who claims that shorter is always better..