Monday, January 21, 2013

Long sentences are OK, if...

In general, long sentences are harder to read than short sentences. However, it’s OK to use long sentences if you do it carefully. Here’s a good example:

In the novel Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks (pictured), a sociology professor is wondering aloud why some men become sex offenders. His wife, Gloria, suggests that maybe they’re programmed or hardwired to be sex offenders. Here is part of the professor’s reply:

“These men are human beings, not chimpanzees or gorillas. They belong to the same species as we do. And we’re not hardwired to commit these acts. If, as it appears, the proportion of the male population who commit these acts has increased exponentially in recent years, and it’s not simply because of the criminalization of the behavior and a consequent increase in the reportage of these crimes, then there’s something in the wider culture itself that has changed in recent years, and these men are like the canary in the mine shaft, the first among us to respond to that change, as if their social and ethical immune systems, the controls over their behavior, have been somehow damaged or compromised. And if we don’t identify the specific changes in our culture that are attacking our social and ethical immune systems, which we usually refer to as taboos, then before long we’ll all succumb. We’ll all become sex offenders, Gloria. Perhaps in a sense we already are.”


I tested the readability of this 166-word paragraph by using the Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) test. The FRE score was 51.2 (highly readable). This is in spite of a very long sentence, the fourth (“If, as it appears...”), with 94 words; and a long sentence, the fifth (“And if we don’t identify...”), with 33 words.

There are three things that compensate for those two long sentences:

One. The two long sentences are preceded by three very short sentences (nine, nine and eight words respectively) and followed by two very short sentences (six and seven words respectively). The reader experiences an easy warm-up before the long jog through the two long sentences and enjoys a rest after the jog.

Two. The average word length is 4.7 characters: short. That helps readability.

Three. Unlike novelists such as Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer, Russell Banks is a craftsman. Although the two long sentences are about a fairly technical topic, most readers will not hesitate or stumble. Read those two sentences again and you’ll notice how logically and smoothly they flow. You’ll also notice how the author’s repetition of the heavy phrase “social and ethical immune systems” actually helps rather than hurts the clarity.

We as readers may agree or disagree with the fictional professor’s argument. But either way, we understand his argument. He stated it clearly.

The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least ten minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly, such as Russell Banks. You will see, hear and feel the stark contrast between careful diction and the careless, vague, infantile diction (sample here) that besets us every day. The topic you select for your reading doesn’t matter, because you’re reading for style not content. If you would like a list of recommended writers and works, please email me at the address shown in my profile. Ask for my “List of Writers to Absorb.” I will respond via email.

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