I think the problem with long sentences is not length per se, but poor construction. A well-written long sentence carries you along with it, and is a joy to read.
Consider this long sentence, the opening line of John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany:
I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.
That's fifty four words, and you're never lost for a moment. Not only that, but by the end of the sentence, you know you're in the hands of an author who's a master of his craft. (Though, to be fair, you probably knew that when you saw his name on the cover.)
Here's a longer sentence from Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Prior to this sentence, Clare has bumped into Henry in the library. She’s met him many times, but he’s never met her. (It’s a time-travel thing, yo.) Clare asks Henry out to dinner. Then comes this:
We plan to meet tonight at a nearby Thai restaurant, all the while under the amused gaze of the women behind the desk, and I leave, forgetting about Kelmscott and Chaucer and floating down the marble stairs, through the lobby and out into the October Chicago sun, running across the park scattering small dogs and squirrels, whooping and rejoicing.
This delightful sentence, fifty-nine words long, skips and dances and flutters in exactly the same way that Clare skips and dances and flutters. It's lyrical and rhythmic and floaty. Try to do that in a short sentence. Again, as you read this, you are never lost even for a moment.
As these two examples show, there are things you can do with long sentences that you simply cannot do with short ones (and vice versa). The question is: What are you trying to accomplish with sentence length? Or: What are you trying to accomplish that can be accomplished only with long sentences? Finally: Are your sentence length choices achieving the effects you want to achieve?
A few years ago I created this exercise for my writer's group, to explore the effects of sentence length, and to be mindful of our choices:
Sentence Length Exercise
- First draft. Draft a scene or section in your usual way, about 500 words. Include activity of some kind, but no dialogue.
- First rewrite: Short sentences. Rewrite the piece using sentences no longer than 10 words.
- Second rewrite: Long sentences. Rewrite the piece using sentences no shorter than 25 words.
- Analyze the effects of sentence length. Analyze your three drafts to identify the effects of sentence length. Make notes about what you observe.
- Final draft. Write your final draft however you wish, but give particular attention to sentence length. Apply everything you have learned about sentence length during this exercise.
Additional guidelines for the exercise
As you revise, notice the changes you make about how to shorten, lengthen, slice, or combine sentences. Notice the effects of each choice, and whether you like each effect.
If writing 10-word sentences is too easy in step 2, use a maximum of 7 words per sentence. If 25-word sentences are too easy in step 3, use a minimum of 30 words, or 35. The idea is to challenge yourself. Within these restrictions, write the best sentences, the best paragraphs, and the best piece you can.
When you've finished revising, consider:
- What challenges did you experience? What was difficult? How did you solve the problems?
- What surprised you? What meaning do you make of your surprise?
- What patterns do you notice in the structures of your short sentences? Of your long sentences?
- What patterns do you notice in the types, lengths, and arrangement of phrases and clauses in your long sentences?
- In your final version, what similarities and variations do you notice in sentence lengths and structures? What patterns do you see in the arrangement of short and long sentences?
- Read each version aloud. What makes a sentence easier or harder to read?
- How did focusing on sentence length affect other elements of your writing?