Academic writing is often characterised as a load of long sentences packed full of complex ideas. It’s not surprising then that you often read and hear advice that says you can help readers make sense of your text by making your sentences shorter. On the face of it, this seems straightforward and sensible. But it may not be. I’ve been doing some reading which questions the short sentence advice.
This week, and following my own urging to use #AcWriMo to do some regenerative work, see previous post, I’ve gone back to one of my favorite writing books, Joe Moran’s (2019) First you write a sentence. The elements of reading, writing … and life. Moran’s syntactical exploration is my preferred combination of literary nerdiness and practical application. And the book is written beautifully as you’d expect. (Yes, you’d be cross if it wasn’t. Well, I would be.) Many of Moran’s sentences about sentences are both eminently quotable and also useful.
Moran has a number of key principles about writing sentences – for instance, they should be speech-like but not be written exactly like talk. He says
“Sentences should be as much like speech as you can make them–so long as you remember that they are nothing like speech. Writing needs to retain the loose shapes of talk, its rhythmic curves and breathing pauses, but overlay them with the tighter shapes of writing.”(p. 90)
Moran advocates writing plainly, not trying to sound too-clever-by-half. Easier said than done, perhaps. Wanting to sound academic is a common problem for new academic writers who are still working out what a scholarly text is and does. They try too hard to sound “classy” as Howard Becker puts it. Moran uses a different term to describe the problem but has an equally useful take.
“So much uncongenial writing comes from the fear of boring others with the obvious. Scared of sounding banal, we muddy our prose and it ends up sounding muddy and banal. The best way to unkink a twisted train of thought or to massage a misshapen piece of logic is simply to say what you have seen and let the reader join the dots.” (p. 100)
So of course Moran has something helpful to say on the question of complexity and sentence length, building on from his suggestion to focus first on meaning and clarity. His key point is that sentence length is a servant to clarity. Sentence length matters because making ideas accessible to the reader matters.
According to Moran, when explanations and argument need to be persuasive and credible, this sometimes does mean making sentences brief.
“When the ideas are complex, it is … crucial not to saddle the reader with long words and phrases, so he (sic) can expend his mental energy on the ideas. The sentences of ‘difficult’ writers like Nietzsche, Kafka and Beckett are often as short and clear as those in Mr. Men books. They may be hard to fathom but they are seldom hard to read. No evidence exists, however comforting its discovery might be for those of us who find it difficult to be easy, that difficulty in writing is a mark of profundity. More likely, long sentences are just overgrown graveyards where unconvincing arguments are conveniently buried.” (p 130)
But focusing on the short sentence as the only way to achieve clarity and accessibility may well be a mistake. If the goal is to help the reader get to grips with the “stuff’ being written about, Moran says, it may be that making things clear requires long sentences.
“Long sentences have their uses. They can be more concise than a string of simple ones, because having a subject and main verb for each thought wastes words. And sometimes long sentences are useful for the opposite reason: not to save words but to expand them, to stretch out a thought so the reader can keep up as you think it through. ‘To know that simplifying may often mean expanding,’ Flesch wrote” (p. 130)
Moran’s argument nicely refocuses discussion about sentence length IMHO. The priority is what the writer is trying to get across. If the substantive content is complex and difficult, the writer has to think first about what the reader needs. Then and only then do they consider how sentence length might help. Or hinder. So the writer not only considers short sentences and cutting words that add little to the overall meaning, but also adding words –
“By expanding complex ideas into long, loose sentences, you mimic the stretched-out thinking-aloudness of speech. Cutting out long, derived words, such as nominalizations, often means using more words in their place–but it can make the writing feel less squashed. The slow train of thought needs plenty of track. This way of making a long sentence clearer sounds counterintuitive: make the sentence even longer by using more words. But the extra words help because they mark the start of phrases, so they break the sentence up into readable little chunks.” (p. 132)
Decisions about syntax are important, Moran says. But it is also important, he suggests, to craft your text not only for meaning and accessibility but also so it reads and sounds as if a human being has written it.
“Being sparing with words does not mean being miserly with them. Words are there to be spent. Even a seemingly redundant word can add a euphonious beat, or give the reader time to think, or parcel out the sense better, or just make the sentence seem as if it comes from a real, human voice.” (p. 132)
So there you go. Sometimes long sentences OK, they are just what the reader needs.
And if you’re not sure where to find a refreshing book for #AcWriMo then do get this one out of the library and give it a whirl. I’m sure you’ll find something in Moran’s work that gives you a new angle on the academic writing you’ve yet to do.