Shorter Isn’t Always Better

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 insists that shorter is always better.

8 thoughts on “Shorter Isn’t Always Better”

  1. Hannibal says:

    Demagogues? Tweets? Superiors?
    Yeah, I see where you’re going, sir. And I couldn’t agree more.

  2. R. Hamilton says:

    Twitter, esp. in its original shorter incarnation (the limit is higher now), did us no favors. But the sound bite was around long before that, at least in the 60’s with TV, and for all I know earlier with radio.

    Back in the 1800’s and earlier when writing was still the main form of long-distance communication, long sentences were fashionable, and mostly I have no problem reading those, give or take changed meaning of words, long S in typography, different penmanship, and indifferent spelling. I too have trouble not writing long sentences; I figure if I can break a paragraph into two sentences coherently, or at least not take up half a page with a single sentence, I’m probably doing ok, although I still get complaints from some that the result is difficult to follow.

    Communication involves two ends (and one-to-many communication has many of the other end). In terms of what’s most digestible for most people today, your editor is probably correct, although I for one am glad you’re not totally giving in. 🙂

  3. Tim says:

    I remember being taught in management training 20 years or so ago that when constructing a ‘mission statement’ if there is the word ‘and’ in it, then you have two statements not one.

    All my experience and training in the technology sector has been to encourage me to follow the KISS paradigm.

    Which is probably why I enjoy reading your books as I get more depth, description and content and less summary.

  4. John Prigent says:

    I well remember being asked by my Managing Director to avoid long words. It was because he understood them, the MBAs in the company didn’t.

  5. Tom says:

    Mr Modesitt,

    Did you not loose your long time editor?

    Is the reason for the present editor’s recommendation a fall in sales or a noted change in your writing style or something else that is specific?

    Perhaps your readers like your sentence structure. If so then, I submit, that there has to be a reason, other than editor suggestion, for making a change.

    1. I used somewhat longer sentences in the book in question. Upon occasion, the editor felt they were too much longer. She was most likely right, given the technical nature of the subject matter.

      But the changes did either lengthen the passages or omit information.

  6. Tom says:

    I can’t wait to learn the ‘technical nature of the subject matter’. Now I understand a child’s need for instant gratification!

  7. Wine Guy says:

    Bullet point style writing is tiresome – if I wanted to get through a book as fast as possible and make sure that it was ‘digestable,’ then by all means write in short sentences since most texts these days are aimed at a 7th or 8th grade reading level.

    On one hand, I have to read enough technical material each day that a 7th or 8th grade level for grammar is perfect (vocabulary at that level in medicine is not appropriate for medical professionals, despite what patients’ rights advocates would have one believe and things written FOR doctors BY doctors are not for patients, which is a distinction they deliberately misunderstand or choose to ignore).

    On the other hand, when reading for pleasure, I want more than a modicum of complexity in structure, plot, and characters. Sentence structure is part of it.

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