I work a lot with voice, especially colloquial writing, with my editorial clients. Aside from dry voice, which is a topic in and of itself, I have been battling long sentences quite a bit recently. I write this post as a reminder to all writers: Bigger isn’t necessarily better. (Cue my thirteen-year-old self giggling.)
Long Sentences Are Hard Work
There are two common ways in which writers elongate sentences unnecessarily. One is via the semicolon, one is by stacking action. Unless you are British or from another Commonwealth country, the semicolon is largely leaving modern trade fiction. (An interesting anecdotal study done for The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer found that semicolon use is inversely proportional to commercial success. Plus, not a lot of people use semicolons correctly.)
I personally encourage clients to avoid them because they create awkward long sentences that drag on. They are especially undesirable in picture books, early readers, and chapter books, and some early middle grade because those readers are not yet comfortable with complex sentence structures (learn about violet prose and how to avoid it here).
Another tendency I see is the stacking of action, especially by using “as.” I encourage writers to limit a sentence to three actions, for example:
She shut her laptop, sipped her coffee, and stared absently at the wall.
(This happens to be my favorite activity…)
Here’s what happens to the sentence, which is long enough already, if “as” comes to the party:
She shut her laptop, sipped her coffee, and stared absent at the wall as the cat prowled for puzzle pieces along the hallway and the mail carrier knocked at the door.
It’s too much for one sentence to do comfortably. (Also, my cat can’t be the only puzzle enthusiast out there, right?) Your work shouldn’t be, well, work to read. When you’re tempted to use a semicolon or “as” to keep something going, consider either zooming out and conveying less action (because you might not need such detail) or breaking up the sentence.
Reading Long Sentences Aloud
Another trick I love to use, especially for picture books, is to read the work aloud. Not only will this help you get a visceral feel for colloquial writing and voice, but it will absolutely indicate which are too long. Why?
People need to breathe. And if you need to breathe in the middle of one of your sentences, it’s too long. Especially in dialogue. We tend to speak in shorter sentences than we’d use for narrative and description. If you have characters speaking in 50-word sentences which are exactly the same as your narrative writing style, that’s an issue. Speech should have its own cadence (get more tips about writing realistic dialogue).
Read your work aloud to focus on long sentences and either eliminate them or break them up. Colloquial writing is here to stay, and shorter, more energetic sentences are going to help you a lot on the voice front. A win for you, and a win for your readers! (Check out this post for tips on writing good sentences!)
If you struggle with voice, I can step in as your manuscript editor and guide you in the right direction with personalized, encouraging feedback.