Thursday, June 12, 2014

'Open Wider'

As I prepare to teach a six-week writing workshop, I decided to repeat a few comments from an earlier post, "In praise of long sentences."

Pico Iyer, among many other prose stylists today, has written in favor of long sentences that are expansive: they open the reader, he says, to various levels of meaning, enabling him or her to go down into herself and into complex ideas that can't be squeezed into an "either/or."

I was glad to see Iyer sing the praises of the long sentence, something I regularly do with my students, even if they are puzzled or turned off by sentences (like this one) that seem to ramble, like speech, or even if they fear that a long sentence like this might be ungrammatical (it ain't) or worry, in the way every writer worries, that such writing is confusing, artificial or pretentious, which it may be if it isn't done carefully, with balanced clauses and phrases and perhaps a dash of humor. And if it isn't balanced by shorter sentences.

Am I showing off? Yes, for good reason.

It's not that I want students of writing to imitate the sometimes unreadable sentences of Henry James; it's just that I want them to have options.

So much depends on a writer's purpose. A descriptive sentence, if it opens a travel article, might be suitable for a long, cumulative sentence (which begins with the main idea, then accumulates modifiers). It would catch the reader's attention. Or it might suggest simultaneous action in a story in a way that a group of shorter sentences could not.

No one would recommend using a lot of really long sentences, just as no one would use James Joyce's Ulysses as a model of prose style.

There are times that a writer might prefer a trailing, expansive sentence that tells the reader, "open wider, please," like a dentist, "so I can more fully explore this thought with you."  But we have to be careful not to overdo such long, trailing sentences and to balance them with simpler ones to allow readers to catch their breath.

Writers at all levels learn a vast amount from reading carefully and paying attention to how skillful writers shape their sentences.

P.S. Here I want to put in a word for my wife, Lynn Schiffhorst, who has her own blog:  You might like to check out her style and see how it differs from mine. She has written a number of books for children, available on Amazon Kindle.

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