There has been no dearth of research about what makes clear, effective writing, especially when it comes to sentence length and its traveling companion – polysyllabic words. Based on those measures, Solnit does everything wrong. She whisks past The Readability Monitor which, using something called the Strain Index, sets average ideal sentence length at 15-20 words. She seems indifferent to the common wisdom repeated in a guest post in the Grammar Girl, which gives nod to a mix of short and long sentences but says most should not meander beyond 30 or 40 words. If you popped Solnit’s essay into the Flesch-Kincaid Readability calculator, it might crash your computer.
Yet to an attentive reader, Solnit’s long and winding sentences – almost manic in tone – are purposeful and, because so, perfect.
(A brief disclaimer: This is not an endorsement of Solnit’s political views. I didn’t pluck this piece from an ocean of bylines to push an agenda, but because of how well it demonstrates an aspect of masterful writing.)
Solnit’s writing is always rich and layered. She is not a news reporter. In the newsrooms I grew up in, the guiding mantras demanded we get to the point and make every word count. And above all, keep it short.
(We were also urged to make it sing, which often seemed in conflict with the others, but that’s another post for another time.) Solnit is a historian, feminist, activist, essayist and book author. Her writing is steeped in research, but wrapped in meditation and directed at an audience willing to invest the time to contemplate. (And one that probably shares her politics.)
In other words, she matches the tone of her writing to the world she is writing about and for.
In “Why the President Must Be Impeached,” the world Solnit enters is that of Donald Trump, with its constant deluge of headlines, tweets, accusations, counter-accusations, denials, assaults, insults, veiled threats, not-so-veiled threats, leaks, head-scratchers, jaw-droppers, distractions … See? Now I’m doing it, too: using a gush of words to try to describe what seems impossible to contain in some mathematical box of readability. Solnit refers to it as “the chaos and destruction emanating from the White House.”
To describe that chaos, she creates a maze-like tour of moments, facts, headlines and her own musings. She cites actual events with precision and concision (I’d love to see her notes), but in ways that leave you dizzy and lost. Consider how she compares today’s political news with what came out of the Nixon and Ford administrations, when a scandal would actually last a week before being eclipsed by other news:
But the Trump administration: it was like snowflakes falling atop snowflakes, each covering up the layer below and sometimes it was an avalanche no one could keep up with and perhaps the answer was not sifting but a snow plow.
At 40 words, this is one of her shorter sentences. She introduces a pause after the colon, then lays out 36 words interrupted only once by a comma. Read it aloud. See if you can get through it without sipping some air. Even if you can, you will find yourself rushing and rushing as she rushes headlong to boom! that snow plow.
Roy Peter Clark, emeritus scholar at The Poynter Institute, deals with sentence and paragraph length in Tools 18 and 19 of “Writing Tools.” From him and other writing gurus, I have learned to attend not just to the number of words in a passage, but to the rhythm and pacing of those words, and to how that creates effect.
The effect of Solnit’s breathless essay is to make me feel overwhelmed and crazed – manic – just as the news does today. Each of her sentences is an intricate weave of clauses, each containing a bit of factual information, each adding to the thicket of entanglement she decries. Her sentences run on and on, yet are not run-ons. They are grammatically perfect; she employs every tool of punctuation except, thank God!, the exclamation point. She is most spare in her use of the period – what Brits call the “full stop.” That scarcity underscores her point: the news emanating from the White House never stops.
This is what Solnit told me about her intent with the maze-like structure of this piece:
Reading Solnit, I hunted my files for other examples of bending the rules to intended effect, and especially, to the effective use of the long, long sentence.
“I was indeed trying to evoke that sense of bewildering overload we all face in the chaotic eventfulness of this turbulent, incoherent administration. I was also interested in how each moment’s scandal obscures the previous week’s scandals. …
“If you throw a rock in a pond, ripples spread outward. If you keep throwing rocks the new ripples overtake and erase the old ones, and the unquiet pond of our consciousness has rock showers now. I wanted to convey the roiled waters as we try to grasp it all, or fail to. That the problem is one of overload.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen does it again and again in his Pulitzer-winning novel, “The Sympathizer.” He uses almost two full pages (pp 238 and 239 of the paperback) to list the things refugees from the Vietnam War cannot forget about their homeland. One sentence alone runs 350 words; rather than bore, it deepens the sense of longing.
Tim O’Brien does it again and again in “The Things They Carried” – part memoir, part novel, part history, probably part hallucination – about his time as a U.S. Army grunt in the Vietnam War. Through layered sentences and cumulative clauses, I can feel the weight of red dirt clotted on my boots, canned peaches in my rucksack, death around the corner, memory and regret and guilt and fear. Reading it, I feel heavy and hopeless.
But such weighted sentences don’t have to be heavy. Ken Fuson uses the same technique to create the feeling of lightness in a newspaper ode to the weather – in this case a 70-degree day in March in Iowa. Somehow he shrugs off the usual meaning of the newsroom barks – One idea per sentence. One sentence per paragraph. Keep it short! – to craft a short story and a sweet mood in one breathless, 291-word sentence contained on the front page of the Des Moines Register.
I haven’t been able to reach Solnit to ask about her essay. (I promise to get back to you if I do.) But Fuson responded to my query about “What A Day!” Here’s what he told me:
I came up with the punch line (“…or begin a new paragraph”) first, so everything I did was built around getting the reader to that line. I could have broken the paragraph up into sentences, but I thought the effect would be too choppy and I’d lose some of the surprise at the end. I believe I was also inspired by a Susan Orlean piece about a traveling gospel group; she includes a very long paragraph that has a sense of poetry to it just by the way she uses the various things she had heard and seen on the road. I wanted to do something similar but on a much smaller scale, so I included things I had seen on that perfect spring day. I tried to break up the graph with some parenthetical devices (“Yes! yes!”) and probably did that too much. If I could rewrite it, I would have cut a couple of descriptions or observations. I read it out loud to some high schoolers this summer and it just felt a bit too long. Finally, the paragraph needed to be short enough that they would put the entire thing on the front page; a jump would have killed it. But this is mostly an example of knowing where I was heading with the ending and figuring out the best way to get there.
This is a long and winding way around saying that sentence length is not a matter of word count but of platform and purpose. (Note the echo of the headline above, and the point of this piece, in the sentence I just wrote?) When used with mastery, sentences respect all the rules and tools of grammar, punctuation and syntax, then breaks or bends them for intended and defensible effect.
So how do you do that in your own writing?
- Read like a writer. Study how others make it work. When you react to a phrase or passage, try to figure out how the writer made that happen.
- Be clear about your main point. What is the essential thing you are trying to say? Where are you heading? How can language help you get there?
- Be clear about the effect you want to create for the reader, and be able to justify it. It’s important to match tone to purpose.
- Read out loud – both other writers work and your own. And not just in your head, but out loud. Learn to hear writing, and to write for hearing.
- No matter how long the sentence, make every word count. Sometimes that means a word counts for rhythm and emphasis rather than to introduce a fact. But it has to be there for a reason.
- Don’t be too self-conscious about this. Self-conscious writing usually sucks.
There endeth the primary lesson, but for fun, I offer three things for optional click-and-ponder:
First, the assurance that understanding the intricacies of syntax can be fun and irreverent. Consider “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences,” by Kitty Burns Florey. You didn’t have to grow up under the watch of the nuns to get a naughty little kick out of this. Same with “Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose,” by Constance Hale. She makes grammar a bit erotic. And if you can stand it, an entire song diagrammed for your disco dancing pleasure. Wait for it …
Second, because it seemed an apt bit of cheek and timing, this piece from Slate, which attempts to diagram a sentence from former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Solnit also wrote a piece reflecting on the life and death of U.S. Senator John McClain, this for the Guardian. No real retrospective of McCain can avoid a commentary on the Palin factor. But again, to detour around politics and stick with the study of writing, check out Solnit’s opening line, and how she pings off well-worn phrase to make it new:
I come not to praise Senator John McCain nor to bury him – plenty of people are taking care those things – but to describe him and our problems with complex people and complex descriptions.
And finally, the opening paragraph of Solnit’s essay:
The other evening, when the air quality had become too poor to go outside because my state was burning, sitting in a window facing another of those apocalyptic red suns going down we’d gotten used to here, on the week that the president unleashed more coal on the world and thus more of the climate change driving the trouble that afflicted oceans and upper atmospheres and, while the wildfires burned the lungs of asthmatic children, I turned again to the chaos and destruction emanating from the White House.
(Editor’s note: This piece was amended after it was first posted to include comments from Rebecca Solnit.)