I posted the other week on the importance of getting the rhythm right when writing sentences. And on the incompetence of my high school English teacher, but that’s another matter.
Getting the rhythm right when you write is part of the essential framework of writing – it lends interest. You can draw the reader, sometimes, by rhythm alone. It applies, of course, to every part of writing – words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs and so on.
The other part of making sentences work is in the content, which is largely a matter of structure. In strict grammatical terms a sentence is a single idea, but it can often be broken up into clauses and sub-clauses.
In non-fiction, particularly – but also, sometimes, fiction – I often discover very long sentences, sometimes embodying more than one idea. They run on (this is a technical term). The reason is that the author hasn’t properly organised their thoughts. It gets egregious when the subject and predicative (‘what’ and ‘what happens’) parts are divided by long qualifying clauses. This can really obstruct meaning. ‘The queen, while sitting at dinner and feeling extremely hungry, but whose crown was extremely heavy and had fallen over her nose, told the king to pass the salt.’ Ouch.
The trick is to make sure the subject (what the sentence is about) and the predicative (what happens to the subject) are adjacent. Sometimes a long sentence is better written as two or three short ones. In both fiction and non-fiction, it’s also useful to organise the ideas in each sentence – to get the order so the sentence leads the reader on a journey.
All this may sound like Writing 101, but it’s amazing how easily writers can get carried into their work. Familiarity breeds contempt – quickly. Yes, writers have to write for themselves first and foremost – but the reader has to be thought about too. One way to test that is to put the work in a metaphorical drawer for a couple of weeks and then re-read it. Does it hold your interest? If it doesn’t, then it probably won’t capture readers either.
The biggest challenge when writing – and one of the causes of long convoluted sentences – is the fact that we think in simultaneous concepts, but writing is linear – a single idea thread. The knack for writers when assembling sentences – and, for that matter, any writing – is to understand the issue and be able to disentangle that simultaneity.
It’s a question, in short, of understanding how people think.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014