This lesson will address three questions that popped up in the “Breaking the Rules” lessons of the past two weeks. The topics here aren’t really rules, but they’re definitely writing situations that you may be likely to encounter: long paragraphs, long sentences, and use of adjectives and adverbs.
Steve asked me to cover the when, where, why, and how of long paragraphs. A little bit of research turned up this quote: “[Paragraph] length is therefore a function of appearance and visual relief."(Stephen R. Covey, Style Guide for Business and Technical Communication,
5th ed. FT Press and Pearson Education, 2012). So according to Covey, short paragraphs are easier on readers. I agree; in our Twitter-fied world, readers’ eyes weary quickly of large blocks of text.
Nevertheless, a paragraph has to contain what it has to contain. If you’re writing nonfiction and your paragraph covers one complex topic, it will necessarily be lengthy. Knowing your audience
will be the key here. If you’re quite sure that your audience is highly motivated readers who are as interested in the subject as you are, then a lengthy paragraph will probably be fine.
Similarly, if you’re writing fiction, there may be times when, for literary effect, you decide to write a paragraph that is considerably longer than the average. A long paragraph will help to establish the pace of that particular scene; I can envision a chapter, for example, where a stream of consciousness from a character might take up an entire page or more.
However, every site that I found on this topic (mostly writers’ guidelines from academic institutions) recommended that writers avoid extremely long paragraphs. The definitions of extremely long paragraphs varied, but the consensus seems to be that after 3 – 6 sentences, or 100 – 200 words, writers should probably look for places to break the long paragraph into a few smaller ones. Of course, paragraphs should cover only one topic, but often there are sub-topics that can happily live in paragraphs of their own. The important thing—in any type of writing—is flow
. Imagine, if you will, the bell curve that you probably first encountered in a math class. At one end of the bell—the skinny end on the left—should be very short paragraphs. At the other skinny end are the very long paragraphs. In the middle, where most of the body of the bell is found, should be paragraphs of average length. So when you’re writing, mix them up. If you find that you’ve written a very long paragraph, imagine that someone might ask you “why is that paragraph so long?” If you can’t come up with a legitimate reason, get out the paragraph cleaver and chop it up. Are you still reading this? It’s killing me to write this long paragraph; they’re just not my style.
Moving on—Catrina asked for guidance about long sentences. She said that she loves to write them, but when she goes back to edit her work, she often breaks them up into several shorter sentences.
Pretty much everything that I just wrote about long paragraphs applies to long sentences, too. It’s all about flow
. To have good flow, a piece of writing should have a mixture of sentence lengths—a few short, a few long, and mostly sentences of medium lengths.
I should note, too, that not all long sentences are run-on sentences, but if you like to write long sentences, be sure that you’ve punctuated all of the phrases and clauses correctly. You can find some great examples of long sentences in literature here.
I recommend that you do as Catrina does—write long sentences in the first draft, and then edit them in the second. Keep a few of the really good ones.
Finally, Steve wanted to know if and when there are times when it’s good to use plenty of adjectives and adverbs, since the prevailing advice of editors (well, okay, of me
) is to favor the well-chosen single noun or verb over the ordinary-noun-plus-adejective or ordinary-verb-plus-adverb combination.
One of the main considerations there is genre
. The genre that springs to mind is romance, where a certain amount of purple prose is expected. And travel writing (you know, those magazines in airplanes that describe destinations you’ll never be able to afford)—you’ve got to use lots of descriptors there. I suppose there are genres in which the expectation is for plenty of adverbs, too—maybe one of you will suggest what those genres might be?
When I’m editing, I’ll let a writer keep an adjective or an adverb if it adds new information to the noun or verb it modifies.
Thus:He murmured softly in her ear.
I’d slash ‘softly’ there—it’s redundant. There’s no other way to murmur but softly. I was attacked by tiny gnats
. ‘Tiny’ isn’t necessary, since all gnats are tiny.
BUT—He murmured threateningly in her ear
. Threats aren’t usually murmured, so the addition of the adverb here helps to set the mood of this scene.I was attacked by enormous gnats.
Since gnats aren’t enormous, this is either hyperbole or science fiction. In either case, it tells the reader something more than just I was attacked by gnats
Thoughts? Comments? Follow-up questions? Agree or disagree, it’s fine—this was a seat-of-my-pants lesson.