Fan Post Advanced Writing Course - Part 2

In part one, we covered idioms and contractions. In this section, we'll take a look at sentence length. I'm going to talk more about the informative nature of a sentence, and when to break or end it.

Run on sentences - sentences that go on and on - usually come from a writer being trapped in a thought as they write. Rushing to get their masterful tidbits of wisdom down before they're forgotten, they keep going and going. I've read sentences in excess of fifty words written by published authors. As an editor, I'll tell you right now that someone dropped the editing ball. The problem with a run on sentence is it packs in too much information. Even if they're written grammatically correct, they represent a stumbling block for a reader. Here's an example written by a very talented author friend of mine for an interview he did with me. I asked him to give me a "two sentence hook" for his novel. This is the first of the two sentences:

"After killing his father in an argument, Japheth Tagori is sentenced to a life of service as a soldier in the Legion – yet he cannot escape his past, as the brigands who worked with his father (a smuggler) want Japheth dead because of something he’s forgotten he knows – the destination of a cartload of gold set to fuel a rebellion."

This 60 word long sentence is correct grammatically - for the most part. But it packs sooooo much into a single sentence, that by the end it leaves the reader kind of exhausted from trying to assimilate what they've read. I could easily cut this sentence into several, and reduce the total word count in doing so. Here's a rule of thumb: Short sentences convey a point better - every single time. Short sentences have power too. They state something cleanly, allowing the writer to use them to sum up what they've written, or convey key details in a concise way. A simple way to recognize an over long sentence is the preposition "and". If you have more than one "and" in a sentence, I can guarantee the sentence is either too long, over-conveying information, or grammatically incorrect.

Here's an example of a write/re-write exercise I did with a friend a while ago. What you will read first is the intial paragraph, then you'll see the re-write. Tell me what you think...

"The last book that I had the pleasure of reading was "The First Star" by Lars Andersen. The book detailed a great story that many are unaware of: the story of the legendary Red "The Galloping Ghost" Grange. He was voted the best college football player of all time by ESPN, he was a member of the first Hall of Fame class, and he is a major reason that the NFL exists today, yet not many know of him. Grange was beyond magnificent at the University of Illinois, where he became a national sensation that rivaled the fame of Babe Ruth. Max Pile, the first sports agent ever, realized what Grange was and what he could become. He became Grange’s agent and signed him with the Chicago Bears who were owned by George Halas. The book then went on to tell the stories of each three men who helped save the NFL and allowed it to become what it has."

Here's the re-write:

"In Lars Anderson's novel, The First Star, he tells the fascinating story of Red Grange - The Galloping Ghost. Grange, voted by ESPN as the greatest football player of all time, is all but lost in history to the current generation of NFL fans. The University of Illinois football star, and NFL Hall of Fame member, is a major reason why professional football exists today. In his day, his fame rivaled Major League Baseball's Babe Ruth. The "Galloping Ghost" signed on with the Chicago Bears after college. His agent, Max Pile, can lay claim to being the first sports agent - ever. Anderson's book weaves a series of tales tracing the lives of Grange, Pile and the Bears owner, George Halas."

You can take a couple things away from this, but the most interesting is the word count. The first example has a word count of 160, while the second comes in at 122. Another thing you may notice is the second one tells a story, while the first one relies on lengthy sentences to convey more formal thoughts. Take a look at the difference the short sentences can make. It helps move the subject from point to point. Now, don't take this as my saying you should write less - far from it. It's about writing concise thoughts so your work flows for the reader.

If you want a great example of short, powerful sentences, read Ryan's articles. He moves from point to point, using short sentences to set up what's to come, or sum up. Joe McAtee does the same thing, and he'll add in observations or humor to expand the thought.

Use short sentence to point where you want the reader to go or understand. I'm not saying all long sentences are wrong. In fact, I've written a few doozies because the thought was singular and important to know moving forward. The thing to keep in mind is starting a new sentence shows you have a mastery of your subject. Long sentences can - sometimes - be the result of trying to convince the reader of something the writer isn't really sold on. This can be a risky move too. Writing isn't about getting the last word into a conversation, and if that's your goal you have a problem. The reader always has the last word, and it will be based on how clear you've conveyed your thoughts.

If anyone has a question about writing, or needs help with a piece they're working on, send me an e-mail. I'm more than willing to help anyone with their writing. Next up, Brandon "Adverb" Bate will tackle really hard words to spell like "the", and explain why adding "ly" to any word will bring you fame and fortune.

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