Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Must. Learn. To write. Shorter. Sentences.

I've been doing a lot of copy editing in the last year. It's satisfying work. The bad kind of satisfying. The drunk-on-self-righteousness kind of satisfying. The "this sentence is a pile of crap and I and only I can whip it into a work of art but not without first nursing some very unkind thoughts about the writer" kind of satisfying.

Power-drunk-jerk stuff.

Okay, I'm being a little hard on myself. I'm not that big a jerk. But I do enjoy getting angry at clunky, fatty, inefficient sentences. I enjoy pummeling them into submission. I enjoy the little rush of outrage I get in the process.

Here's what I don't enjoy so much these days: Looking at my own writing.

Don't get me wrong. I can write some good sentences. Elegant and efficient. But I also excrete some colossal steamers. And it's making me mad.

Here's how thoughts come out of me.
When I consider whether it's important to write short
sentences I can't deny that, in more skillful hands, long sentences are, indeed,
often quite effective and, when used as a form of artistic license, can
serve as a form of Cormac McCarthy-esque poetry-as-power sort of device.
Here's how I want that to come out of me:
Yes, some long sentences kick ass.
I suppose the good news is that I'm catching more problems in my own sentences. The bad news is that I don't want to catch them. I want to write sentences perfectly in the first damn place. I can only hope that, slowly, that's what I'm learning to do.

In the meantime, I should probably lighten up on the freelancers I edit who don't know a dangler from a dingleberry.

Nah. That's not gonna happen.

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Terry Finley said...

Which is more important:
content or length?

To me content matters much


Terry Finley


June Casagrande said...

Definitely. But once you have the content thing down, form can be prioritized.

I suppose some people might take the other side -- might prefer form to content.

But I'm one of those people very focused on "the point" of any communication. So, like you, I find content to be paramount.

Joel said...

On the one hand, obviously we're all after content. I'd argue that even those who claim to be more interested in form are simply interested in a form less obviously translatable--whether more or less significant differs from case to case. Even the most obviously and lamentably vacuous style itself signifies a kind of form.

On the other hand, as my rhetoric teacher was found of saying: "form equals meaning." Which is to say that as expression reaches its zenith of quality, the various "incidentals" of sight and sound and whatever other arbitrary sensory categories we might impose all somehow embody a meaning beyond or deeper or more emphatic than that typically recognized in transactional models. As MacLeish said, "A poem should not mean / But be. And, yes, whatever our culture dictates, all communication should approach poetry. Moreover, I find that it's often the case, in following the words and getting lost in their form, that I discover new things--maybe stuff that I meant but didn't realize I meant or maybe something I'd never quite come to at all.

This whole sentence thing has me contemplating--probably too much, in fact--the broader implications of our propensity to shortness, the arbitrariness of length and of other grammatical criteria and, indeed, of grammar itself. More importantly, your post on the sadly exploitive single-sentence novel has me wondering when and how best we might--to me, it's not a question of can or should or even where--bend, violate and break those rules. How much must we concede to custom? At what point does "creativity" turn into mere cacophony?

I even--maybe especially--like the idea of violating the assumed boundaries between practical and freer forms of communication. Granted, I probably want emergency response professionals to speak clearly and simply and practically, and I prefer road signs, for instance, to be direct. But in most other cases, I like the idea of imagination invading the assumed domain of pragmatism.

Maybe contrary to your intent (though you did express some appreciation for instances of the longer form), I've drawn back to a more grateful reflection on the long, rambling sentence. Don't get me wrong; short is cool. I can love shortness. I do love shortness. Really. But there's something about long, rambliness. It suggests something that never quite ends, that can't quite be contained or captured. Which seems more like what runs through my heart. And maybe that's why we call it stream of consciousness.

So, again, the question is, how do we most effectively transgress the barriers of the heart?

I know, I know: I'm taking this way out of context. I guess we'll see if it works. Whatever that means. . . .

June Casagrande said...

Joel wrote: "I find that it's often the case, in following the words and getting lost in their form, that I discover new things--maybe stuff that I meant but didn't realize I meant or maybe something I'd never quite come to at all."

That's so true! And it's a benefit of blogging I hadn't anticipated. I often think: I have a general idea of something I want to say, but I have no idea how to say it. Then I start writing and the words often nail it better than I could have, or take me someplace else.

I've always been very lazy about practicing my writing. I forget that practice really does help (me, at least). And that's a big part of why.


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