"Write short sentences" is bad advice

29 January 2021
29 Jan 2021
West Lafayette, IN
4 mins

A common writing advice is to keep your sentences short and simple. The argument goes that writing is better when it is concise, because you’re more efficiently communicating your ideas. Long sentences take more energy for the reader to process, and you shouldn’t require that of the reader if it’s not necessary. That seems to be the logic.

This is bad advice.

Sentence length and rhythm are linguistic tools at the disposal of a writer just like word choice and grammar. Short sentences are useful for certain things, and long sentences are useful for other things. To tell a writer to only use short sentences because long sentences are hard to understand is patronizing to both the writer, whose ability to compose good sentences you have just insulted, and the reader, whose reading ability you have also underestimated.

If you keep your sentence lengths short all the time, and your sentence structures minimal all the time, you don’t get good prose, you get a nursery rhyme. Something with such monotonic and one-track rhythm that it becomes tedious to read.

Imagine if I only wrote the shortest sentences I could. I cut out all my asides. I remove redundant words. I keep my ideas concise. It gets boring to read. My ideas no longer connect from one sentence to another. They can’t congeal in the mind. Reading writing like this feels disjointed and stuttery. You eventually focus too much on the broken rhythm. How are we to communicate eloquently like this? It’s madness.

Instead, consider this:

Short sentences are sometimes useful. They’re useful for making a sharp point, like a fast cut in a film synchronized to the sudden pang of a gunshot. They’re also useful for stating a claim: long sentences are fine. But many times, you write for a purpose greater than to simply transplant a logical assertion from your brain to the brain of another human. Like a single cut in a film that follows a character sprinting across a burning battlefield with bombs raining down, long sentences stretch out time and build tension through the words. Composers, who think deeply about the importance of variety in phrasing, know the importance of this variation intimately.

Sometimes what you want is indeed a sharp, pointed sentence.

Keep your sentences short. Make simple points. Hold the reader’s attention. Don’t make them think harder to understand what you mean.

But many times, the meaning isn’t in the words we use but how we say it.

If you trust in the reader, if you trust in the strength of your idea spoken through your words to hold their hands steadily and firmly through your maze of ideas bubbling through, you might occasionally take the leap of faith to build tension and anticipation through a longer sentence – perhaps one just like this – to build to a great release at the end. A breath of relief; a point made.

Telling writers to write short, concise sentences is like telling a director to keep their cuts 2-4 seconds in length for whole movie, or telling a composer to only use 2-measure phrases for an entire song. It’s nonsense that covers up the true problem with long sentences: writing well-constructed long sentences is a skill to be practiced. The solution isn’t to ban long sentences, but to learn how to construct them artfully.

The correct advice should be, “write sentences that are easy to understand.” This is different than “don’t write long sentences.”

Write long sentences, if you must. Write short sentences, if they are fit to serve. Write whatever the hell kind of sentence you want. I don’t care. But whatever you do, write sentences that carry the full weight of your meaning, where you don’t have to chop up your ideas to fit short sentences or stretch out your ideas to cover long ones.

Writing is more than what you say, it’s also how you say it. Sentence length and rhythm are just two other tools in the toolbox of the writer, and we should learn to use them well rather than shy away from their sharp edges.

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