The Length of a Sentence

During my time as a student, I’ve had lots of teachers tell me what words to use and how. As a Masters of Creative Writing student, I’m more likely to take my current mentors’ words for it.

When I was in sixth grade, my teacher attempted to drill the words “things” and “stuff” from our collective vocabulary. In the Internet age, things and stuff have become descriptive words on their own, with no easy replacement term. However, I still take her lesson to heart, and attempt to use better words when I’m trying to describe something.

However, I’ve run into an interesting argument with my current mentor. And this time, I’ve got a published author to back me up.

I have great respect for my mentor. He is an excellently talented author, and a stern taskmaster for those that he is charged with teaching. He has given me wonderful feedback and I am positive that the book I am working on at the moment with him will be much the better for his input. (It already is.)

However, I take some small amount of umbrage with his latest writing attack. In a fit of Hemingway idolization, he’s decided that all sentences need to be short and concise. A friend of mine refers to this as the “alphabet rule”: a sentence should consist of 26 or less words – the number of letters in the alphabet. My mentor posits a lower number, closer to 10 or 15.

I do not have a major argument with this right off the bat. There is a tendency in fledgling authors to write and write and write and write, and not really say anything. Redundancy and repetitiveness can clutter a sentence and make it incredibly hard to read. Myself and others in his student group could all stand to cut several of our darlings. (I shudder to think of what he’d say to these blog posts.) However, I believe in allowances against this…whereas I’m not sure he does.

In his mind, the sentence should be short – no exceptions. If you have a wordy sentence, you are using too many words. There are no questions asked. If you cannot say it in twelve words, make it two separate sentences. He sees no reason why this cannot be the golden rule for all writing.

I do not consider myself an expert in this field, so I can’t argue with him with my own opinions. I think that shorter can be better – but not the be all and end all. I wanted to find a way to present him with an argument to the contrary, but I didn’t know how exactly to go about it.

Until I found this book.

My housemate and I are both fans of Terry Pratchett, and she’s been reading through his entire Discworld series over time. I found one of the books, and noted that it appeared to focus on my favorite character – and read a bit of the beginning.

There is a sentence in the first few pages that puts my mentor to shame – and there is no way that I’d break it up if I were Pratchett’s editor. It is humorous and witty, and redundant and long. At 47 words long, I can imagine the fit my mentor would have with it. But here is the sentence:

“It is covered with gently rolling curves that might remind you of something else if you saw it from a long way away, and if you did see it from a long way away you’d be very glad that you were, in fact, a long way away.” (p. 2, Reaper Man)

That is a perfectly Pratchett sentence. It is a sentence that only has its kick when presented as one long burst. It is repetitive and long and wordy.

And it is beautiful.

I do not believe in rules that don’t have exceptions. That’s a no-win scenario, and I don’t believe in them either. (I’ll go stand with Jim Kirk on that one.)

Maybe I’ll let my mentor see this post. I’d be interested to see what his response would be – though I can imagine it being something like what my high school art teacher always told me: “You have to know the rules before you’re allowed to break them.”

But I’ll stand by my exceptions, and believe in Pratchett.


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