“Hello, Mignon. I have a question regarding your [episode last week], actually, on writing in a more compact way, and I was wondering whether there are any cases, in particular, where you do want to lengthen your sentence, where you want to add some more words there in the middle to prove your point, or where you do want some repetition … for rhythm or for convention. Are there any cases like this, or should we always … I get it’s a general rule that we do want to write more compactly, but … are there any cases where we actually want to make a sentence longer? Yeah, that’s my question. Thank you for your podcast and the content. Love you.”
This is a great question. As with grammar, writing doesn’t always follow a single set of rules. There are times when you may need to include more detail or use longer sentences.
Some of these times include:
Fiction: Context, scene-setting, and character development all help your readers enjoy and follow your story. This may mean using more adjectival and adverbial phrases.
Creative writing: In poetry, personal essays, and other kinds of creative writing, you often want to get your ideas out and make people think. So you might employ some “flowery” language or stream-of-consciousness writing.
Academic writing: This type of writing may include literature reviews, persuasive essays, research papers, and opinion or commentary pieces, among others. According to publisher Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, “… academic writing involves expressing your ideas, but those ideas need to be presented as a response to some other person or group; and they also need to be carefully elaborated, well supported, logically sequenced, rigorously reasoned, and tightly stitched together.” Most importantly, academic writing involves thorough documentation of evidence, so that may involve more words.
Technical writing: If you are explaining something technical or giving instructions to an audience already familiar with the topic and lingo, you may need to give them all aspects of the process, design, and the like. If your readers are not familiar with the subject or don’t need to know all the technical details, keep it concise.
Journaling and other informal writing: If you are just writing for your own benefit, of course, the sky’s the limit! The important thing here is getting your thoughts or feelings onto paper. So don’t worry about keeping it tight!
Now, let’s talk about writing “loosely” and what it looks like. Writer and writing instructor Gary Provost offered the following wisdom: “The best advice I can give you is to vary your sentence length … So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music.” This advice itself is a great example of creating “music” – or “rhythm” – with your writing, as our caller described.
There are many different types of sentences you can combine to create this music. As you’ll find in the book “Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students“:
Simple sentences have only one main clause (with a subject and verb), like “The kitten is trouble.”
Compound sentences are made by joining main clauses with a conjunction or semicolon, as in “The kitten is trouble, and he has destroyed all my knick-knacks.” Both parts of the sentence could be complete sentences on their own if you put a period between them.
Complex sentences have at least one main clause and one dependent clause (which could not stand on its own), like “The kitten destroyed all my knick-knacks while I was sleeping.”
Lastly, compound-complex sentences have at least two independent clauses and at least one dependent clause, as in “The kitten is trouble, and he destroyed all my knick-knacks while I was sleeping.”
Use these different types of sentences to switch up your writing!
Note: With compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences, be sure to use proper punctuation so your writing is clear and easy to read. Always use a comma before a conjunction – like “and,” “or,” and “but” – joining two independent clauses. And don’t forget about our friend the semicolon (which often gets no respect) to separate independent clauses that are closely related when you want more of a pause than a comma and conjunction offer, but not as much as a period, as in “The kitten is a lunatic; he destroyed all my knick-knacks while I was sleeping.”
Now, if you want to add more detail or context to your writing, consider loose and periodic sentencesopens PDF file . Loose sentences begin with an independent clause and end with subordinate clauses or modifiers. For example, “The kitten is trouble, and he tears through the house like a lunatic while I am sleeping, destroying all of my knick-knacks.” The main clause – “The kitten is trouble” – is followed by various descriptive phrases. As Felicity Nussbaum pointed out in her 1995 book “The Autobiographical Subject,” loose sentences can be used to give “the impression of spontaneity and … immediacy.”
Periodic sentences, on the other hand, begin with descriptive elements and end with the main point – the independent clause. Compare this to the first example: “Tearing through the house like a lunatic while I was sleeping and destroying all my knick-knacks, the kitten is trouble.” In this case, the sentence starts with the descriptors and ends with the main point. Which type of sentence you use will depend on the importance of detail to your writing and how quickly you want to get to the main point.
The Kansas Medical Center (KUMC) Writing Centeropens PDF file echoes Provost’s advice: “During revision, pay attention to sentence structure. Using too many loose sentences can be monotonous, while overusing periodic sentences lessens their rhetorical [think stylistic] power. Instead, use various sentence structures.” Break up the monotony with simple sentences every now and then. And remember that your first draft is bound to have some extra wordy sections. Don’t worry about perfecting your writing the first time around. That’s why we have revisions.
Finally, whether you’re writing in a “tight” or “loose” style, always consider your audience! What is your purpose? To entertain them? Instruct them? Persuade them? Educate them? Give quick bits of critical information? If your audience is very busy and receives several business reports per day, for example, you want to employ tight writing and get the point right away (remember the BLUF – bottom line up front!). If you are writing a funny email to a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while, it’s perfectly fine to be wordier.
We appreciate this follower’s question, which highlights the different styles and purposes of writing. Keep it tight, but don’t be afraid to loosen it up when appropriate! Happy writing!