Saturday, 12 January 2013

Length of Sentences

Some time ago, I knew a very popular British author, now deceased.  He wrote historical fiction, delightful prose with long, flowing sentences. He was fairly successful for a while, and then he developed a new set of characters in a new location for a series of books. He was asked, by his publisher, to re-vamp his style.

Books with short sentences did much better, they said. So, he actually adjusted his material from his original attractive (to me) style to sentences that were around seven words long. Paragraphs had to be much shorter too, to make them an easy-read. I found this extraordinary and his books were subsequently uncomfortable to read, at least for me, because of the over-frequent shifts in focus.  

Of course, sometimes short sentences work best.  I had been teaching about using short sentences for dramatic passages in fiction, to rev up the pace, increase tension, and that's fine. But when all the sentences are abrupt, simple statements, writing seems to lose some of its richness and texture.

The series of books was very successful, so it seems my friend's publisher was correct. Publishers are, after all, business people and it's the accountants who have the final say!

My magazine column used to contain more depth than it does today. My editor changed the formula, he wanted "sound bites" not "analysis". It still pays the same but not quite the job satisfaction I had before.

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