Long Sentences: Should We Always Avoid Them?

Prepare to be blown away—and burned beyond recognition—with the ashtonishingest long sentence ever. (Yes, I made that long word up.)

Let me start with a WARNING:
This post contains SHOCKINGLY GRAPHIC but brilliant writing!

Learn from the Master: Tom Wolfe

In an era of costumed heroes and villains, I believe it’s due to highlight one of the greatest literary champions of our time—the white-suited Tom Wolfe.
The books by this American giant once shook the planet—at least, the reading part of it—with something most people had never seen before.
Consider this 226-word sentence and its pure, uncompromised brilliance.

An Excerpt from Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff

[Context: Jane’s husband is a test pilot, and she fears she’ll be receiving bad news about him any minute.]

“When the final news came, there would be a ring at the front door—a wife in this situation finds herself staring at the front door as if she no longer owns it or controls it—and outside the door would be a man . . . come to inform her that unfortunately something has happened out there, and her husband’s body now lies incinerated in the swamps or the pines or the palmetto gras, ‘burned beyond recognition,’ which anyone who had been around an air base for very long (fortunately Jane had not) realized was quite an artful euphemism to describe a human body that now looked like an enormous fowl that has burned up in a stove, burned a blackish brown all over, greasy and blistered, fried, in a word, with not only the entire face and all the hair and the ears burned off, not to mention all the clothing, but also the hands and feet, with what remains of the arms and legs bent at the knees and elbows and burned into absolutely rigid angles, burned a greasy blackish brown like the bursting body itself, so that this husband, father, officer, gentleman, this ornamentum of some mother’s eye, His Majesty the Baby of just twenty-odd years back, has been reduced to a charred hulk with wings and shanks sticking out of it.”


How Does Tom Wolfe Get Away with Such a Long Sentence?

Haven’t we all heard the creed that sentences should be short?
Of course, if you write web copy or emails, you’d do well to follow this rule.
In creative writing, however, you have more freedom. Use it!
Write a long sentence to break a string of short ones. This way, you can bring music into your prose—a flowing rhythm that speeds up and then slows down again.
Wolfe adapted the length of his sentences to fit his purposes. He wasn’t scared to throw in a long—loooonnnngggg—sentence for effect. But every clause, phrase, and word did valuable work—adding warmth, context, and resonance.
Wolfe teaches us that it’s OK to break the rules—when it helps you get your message across.

What the Rules Are For

The rules are there to help us, not to restrict us.
But I end with a word of caution.
Don’t just start breaking the rules or copying some writer’s idiosyncrasies. Develop your own writing style, even if it takes many years. Your style will grow if you read and write a lot.
As the great William Zinsser puts it:
“Nobody becomes Tom Wolfe overnight, not even Tom Wolfe.”

Enjoyed this blog?

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Long Sentences: Should We Always Avoid Them?

Niels Kwakernaak

Nonfiction Editor

Thanks for your interest in my experience and ideas. I write these blogs to help you overcome the hurdles of being a writer.

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