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This is from a piece I wrote a couple of years back:

The sky seemed like a big, large pool of grey smoke. The weather was cool, moist. A fresh, earthy smell hung on the air.

I peered through the window with slick navy blue curtains, swinging to and fro to the movement of the minibus, blocking my view to some extent. Tiny rain droplets drizzled onto the closed glass pane with a light tinkle, creating a rhythmical musical tune which doubtlessly was perceived by quite a few. I could see the vague reflection of a stressed me breaking into a little grin on the damp window pane, as well as my surroundings. I became lost into admiring the lovely shower for a few moments before reality struck me hard.

I've been told that most of my sentences are too complex and that it isn't easy to follow my writing. And my English teacher said that some of the sentences are downright confusing. And that I try to cram too many information into a single sentence. Is it really too difficult for the reader to understand what's going on?

How can I prevent myself from writing overly complex sentences which might not get understood that easily? Is it worth aiming for a poetic effect at the cost of not being clearly understood? It has become kind of a habit for me to write unintelligible yet impressive sentences. Somebody has even said that I write in a "charmingly old-fashioned way".

Keep in mind that I'm not a native English speaker and only 12. I'm an aspiring writer, nonetheless. And I still need to improve my English writing skills a lot.

NOTE

I'm not 12 anymore, hence the strikethrough on that bit. Please keep in mind that this question was written a long time ago and got closed around that time. It is now over 2 years old and has been reopened only this recently. I was new here then and didn't know too well how to frame a proper question. I just happened to revisit this again one day and went on to patch up the issues it had. But I wasn't expecting this to suddenly get reopened and get such attention.

Again I'm not still 12 (I'm 14 now, in fact) and now this piece is something I'm incredibly ashamed of. All the cringey stuff I wrote back when I was young and didn't know any better. I would never write something like this now. But thanks for all of your thoughtful comments!

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    I thought this could be answered, because the OP writes at the end "how can I prevent myself from writing overly complex sentences which will not be easily perceived?" which was what I addressed, not the passage in question. Asking about technique is absolutely on-topic here. – Lauren Ipsum Nov 17 '16 at 10:57
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    This question, in its current form, is asking for a critique of a piece of text. Critiques and rephrase requests are off-topic here. However, as @LaurenIpsum notes, the penultimate paragraph asks a good question and would itself make a good Q&A question. If you'd like to edit this we'll consider re-opening. – Neil Fein Nov 17 '16 at 21:28
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    I did not ask for critique of that passage. First, I asked whether it's true or not - that I write complicatedly. I was asking the readers to form their opinions based on the passage. I think I write complicatedly, so do many people who have commented on my works. At last, I request for a way to help me solve my problem. Is there anything about "asking for a critique" here? – Soha Farhin Pine Nov 19 '16 at 10:02
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    If you want a site to help you, you'll find that working with them will produce better results than simply complaining. If you feel this question was closed in error, I recommend opening a thread on our meta site. – Neil Fein Nov 20 '16 at 13:31
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    Also, if you have questions that are more specific to learning english, you might consider posting them on the English Language Learners site. – Neil Fein Nov 20 '16 at 13:34
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The sky seemed like a big, large pool of grey smoke. The weather was cool, moist. A fresh, earthy smell hung on the air.

I peered through the window with slick navy blue curtains, swinging to and fro to the movement of the minibus, blocking my view to some extent. Tiny rain droplets drizzled onto the closed glass pane with a light tinkle, creating a rhythmical musical tune which doubtlessly was perceived by quite a few. I could see the vague reflection of a stressed me breaking into a little grin on the damp window pane, as well as my surroundings. I became lost into admiring the lovely shower for a few moments before reality struck me hard.

It sounds a lot like you are trying to add words for the sake of it.

Just in the first sentence you have 'big, large pool'. At least one of big or large is redundant as they mean the same thing, equally we know that the sky is big and 'big' seems a bit weak when describing the sky.

Later on you have 'musical tune' again something of a tautology. I would also question whether tiny droplets of drizzle (another tautology) really do fall onto glass with a light tinkle.

One think I would say is a lot of writing (and indeed art in general) is about observation. Think about what very specific things really matter in a scene rather than what you know or assume to be present.

I've reconstructed your original in a way to illustrate this, while trying not to alter the sense of what you have actually written very much.

The sky seemed like a pool of grey smoke. The weather was cool and a fresh, earthy smell hung in the air.

I peered through the window, its slick navy blue curtains, swinging to and fro to the movement of the minibus. Tiny droplets drizzled onto the glass pane, creating a rhythmical pattern like a visible piece of music. I could see the my own reflection in the glass, superimposed on a damp landscape. My faint smile distorted by the tiny beads of water.

I became lost in admiring the lovely shower for a few moments before reality struck me hard.

In the above version I've cut out about 50% of the adjectives and played with the structure a bit. Long sentences aren't necessarily a bad thing but they need to flow, you don't want a sentence where the actual sense is broken up by long subordinate clauses so that by the time you get to the object of the sentence you've forgotten how it started.

In particular you have a couple of fragments tacked onto the end of sentences which don't fit very well eg. blocking my view to some extent not really adding much, that's what curtains do and it seems a bit sort of utilitarian in a description which seems to be trying to evoke a daydream. Also ...which doubtlessly was perceived by quite a few a bit clunky and again doesn't really add much.

Also you can use metaphor to give a sense of how a character feels, how they perceive a scene will be affected by their mood. Here rather than just saying they were stressed the phrase My faint smile distorted by the tiny beads of water paints more of a picture.

So to summarise.

  • Be economical with adjectives and only use them when they really add something .
  • Sentences should flow, try reading them out load.
  • The objective is to give the reader a sense of the scene, to do that you need to decide what is important. Many people will have sat on a bus in the rain so you can tap into that experience, if you choose the right words.

There is no trivial way to achieve good sentence structure but almost always a dense piece of description will benefit from careful re-reading and refining.

Also economy of words in descriptive passages if often more powerful than cramming in as much as you can think of. That way you are left with only the important bits but equally you often need to write a lot and cut it down in order to work out what is important. With experience this will become more of an automatic process.

Finally poetry is not about verbal gymnastics but rather about wringing the maximum possible meaning out of your writing and considering the effects of every aspect of it from the nuanced meanings to words and what associations they might have to structure, rhythm and word order.

  • This is an outstanding answer, and helpful to me in my writing as well. I would like to offer, however, that the OP said they're a non-native English speaker, as well as only twelve years old, so using words like tautology without explaining that it means having said something twice is, perhaps, reducing the power of your answer, at least in the eyes of the OP. – J.D. Ray Oct 15 '18 at 16:07
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    @J.D.Ray Definitely not. I'm not 12 anymore (14, in fact), which is why that part was striked out. I'm perfectly aware what tautology is and even what specialist semantic field is. – Soha Farhin Pine Oct 15 '18 at 16:35
  • Well, then, give me reduced marks for reading comprehension. ;) – J.D. Ray Oct 15 '18 at 17:01
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    @J.D.Ray Haha, that was clever. Sorry if I'm came across as too annoyed or something, but it's really perfectly fine. I'm not offended in the slightest. – Soha Farhin Pine Oct 15 '18 at 17:17
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    @J.D.Ray You were rather chivalrous for pointing out that the younger members of this community might find some of the language difficult which would in turn hinder them from getting the best out of this otherwise excellent answer. Finally a high-rep user who isn't indifferent to the plight of new/young/inexperienced SE users! – Soha Farhin Pine Oct 15 '18 at 17:24
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If writing long sentences is a habit, you have two options:

1) Break the habit.
2) Write Regency romances, where lengthy and convoluted sentences are preferred.

More seriously, it doesn't matter how long or short your sentence is if it's unintelligible — your own word. If your reader can't understand you, then you need to edit until you can be understood.

There's a place for dreamy, lyrical, poetic writing. But even poetry has to be broken up occasionally with short phrases, or the inner ear gets exhausted and the brain can't follow a thought across an entire paragraph.

After you've spilled your pasta on the page, make a copy of it. (I suggest a copy so that you don't feel like like you're butchering your beautiful work. It's still there, on the previous page.) As an editing exercise, in your duplicate, take every sentence and cut it into two or three smaller sentences. Do it just to prove you can.

After you've done that 10 times to 10 different passages, go back to your originals and put the short versions side by side. See if you can weave them together: long long short, long short short, long short. Listen for the rhythm of the sentences.

Read your work out loud. This is important. If you find yourself struggling to keep the melody of the sentence coherent, line after line, your sentences are too long. Throw in a shortie to break it up.

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    Thanks for the wonderful recommendations! They're practical and to-the-point. I hope this technique works! – Soha Farhin Pine Nov 17 '16 at 9:24
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    @SohaFarhinPine -Practice practice practice. Throwing in a short sentence here and there can be quite effective. Lauren is right on. It will get easier as you write more and your vocabulary increases. When doing the exercises Lauren suggested. Just focus on learning how to shorten things and use expressive action verbs (e.g. scurried vs ran quickly). Perfecting those skills are critical. Whether it improves this particular passage is mostly irrelevant at this point as you are trying to learn a skill at first. Make sense? You're young and smart. You have a bright future in writing. Give it time – iMerchant Nov 20 '16 at 23:41
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No, your sentences are not at all confusing and your English teacher is wrong.

I could see the vague reflection of a stressed me breaking into a little grin on the damp window pane, as well as my surroundings.

I am from England, and people use this sentence structure occasionally, so its totally fine. I loved that sentence by the way, it paints a picture in my head of the character with bags under their eyes, grinning at their reflection in a misted window.

You should always try and vary your sentence lengths/types in writing to achieve different effects. Sometimes, you should use short sentences, sometimes compound ones, and use these to your advantage as a writer. However, avoid falling into purple prose. This is where almost every other word in your prose is an adjective/adverb, and this seriously isn't good. It's fine to have great description, but be careful not to fall into that. Sometimes, it's best to try and paint the pictures you're trying to create with less words than more. In fact, using the right words, less is more.

I'm in no place to critique your writing, as that's off topic on this site, but I'd like to point out that I feel that in some places you are being a bit too descriptive. For example:

closed glass pane

It feels, a bit, too specific.

I became lost into admiring the lovely shower for a few moments before reality struck me hard.

In this sentence, as well as a few others, your grammar isn't perfect, but you're a non-native speaker so don't worry. I think you're trying to build up a bit of tension/realisation with reality struck me hard. This would be better achieved by making that a simple, short sentence, really juxtaposing the beauteous description before it.

Conclusion

  • Vary sentence structure

  • Don't fall into purple prose!

I'd like to finally wish you luck with your writing. For not being a native speaker, you're really good!

Actually, I can sum up this answer in just a few words. Sometimes, less is more

  • Thanks for all your encouragement and support! It truly is a great answer. I know I've made a few grammatical errors since it's my first draft. But, the general view of others is far from yours. Almost everybody opines I write complicatedly. – Soha Farhin Pine Nov 16 '16 at 18:13
  • "I became lost into admiring the lovely shower for a few moments. Then, reality struck me hard, jerking me out of my reverie." - is this revision better? And you were right. I DID try to build tension with that clause. – Soha Farhin Pine Nov 16 '16 at 18:17
  • 'closed glass pane' - the 'closed' is necessary. You will understand that only if you read the whole narrative. – Soha Farhin Pine Nov 16 '16 at 18:29
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    I'm so impressed that you're only twelve and doing so well with English :). I don't think the revision is perfect because its still not a short sentence. You should literally just have 'Reality struck me hard' for the second sentence, nothing else. It just gets the point out there, snaps out of it straight away by creating contrast in sentence types. By having an extra clause (jerking me...) you are not creating a really good contrast. – Daniel Cann Nov 16 '16 at 18:41
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Others have provided excellent suggestions on how to address certain imperfections in your writing excerpt. I thought I'd take a broader perspective on the questions you've asked.

Is there anything wrong with my style of writing which has repeatedly been labeled “too complicated”?

With your style? No, not at all. It's more about how well you execute that style. As others have noted, a more complicated sentence structure needs greater care with grammar and punctuation, to enable your reader to navigate the twists and turns of the sentence: inadequate opportunities to pause (commas, colons, semicolons, dashes, parentheses) and your reader will fail to take the corner, while poor grammar is like potholes and corrugations. Note: long complicated sentence! ;-)

Is it really too difficult for the reader to understand what's going on?

Not really, in the example you've given. But neither is it entirely easy. Be careful of ambiguous placement of phrases and clauses: for example, "blocking my view" seems to relate to "minibus" but of course you mean it's the curtains that block the view. Similarly "breaking into a little grin on the damp window pane, as well as my surroundings" suggests your grin is on both the window pane and the surroundings. In both cases the reader will work out what you mean, but (for me at least) the syntax caused a momentary distraction. Compare with "vague reflection of a stressed me (breaking into a little grin) on the damp window pane, with my surroundings providing a ghostly backdrop."

How can I prevent myself from writing overly complex sentences which might not get understood that easily?

As others have suggested: reading it out loud, and being rigorous with correct grammar. Don't get too worried about doing this in your first draft: the main thing is to get the words out! But do multiple runs at editing, first for structure and flow, then for grammar, then trim the excess, then perhaps add some "quality" (the occasional simile or metaphor, the value-adding adjective or adverb), reading it aloud, then doing this cycle again.

Also, practice practice practice, and find others you can share your work with! The more often you write for a real audience, the better you'll become at refining both your sentences and your style.

Is it worth aiming for a poetic effect at the cost of not being clearly understood?

Never! If you're not being clearly understood, you're failing at the first hurdle. The primary task of a write is to communicate. Poetic devices offer a powerful way of communicating additional meaning and depth, but there's no point putting a glittering saddle on an ornery donkey. Writers like Hemingway eschewed ornamental prose - read his Pulitzer-winning short novel The Old Man and the Sea for a superb example of verbal economy.

By all means be poetic if that's your preferred style, but treat it like make-up: a modest amount creates highlights, depth, interest and mystery, while too much (or inexpertly applied) can simply become tawdry.

Your example is certainly not tawdry, and the poetic effects are well suited. Refinement will come with practice.

  • Thanks for going through my write-up so thoroughly! Well, this question is from long, long ago and this was just an attempt to rework on its issues. I wasn't expecting this to suddenly be reopened and get such attention. I was new here then and didn't know too well how to frame a proper question. I'm not still 12 (14, in fact) and now this piece is something I'm incredibly ashamed of. All the cringey stuff I wrote back when I was young and didn't know no better. I would never write something like this now. But thanks for your thoughtful comments! – Soha Farhin Pine Oct 15 '18 at 5:58
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Below, I look like I'm critiqueing the specific piece. But my goal is to present principles that could be used more generally.

First: Your grammar needs to be correct. Complex sentences need to be absolutely correct--otherwise, the meaning is lost in the combination of complexity and error.

So I corrected the passage, changing as little as I could:

The sky seemed like a big, large pool of grey smoke. The weather was cool, moist. A fresh, earthy smell hung in the air.

I peered through a window covered with slick navy blue curtains that swung to and fro in time with the movement of the minibus, blocking my view to some extent. Tiny rain droplets drizzled onto the closed glass pane with a light tinkle, creating a rhythmical musical tune which doubtlessly was perceived by quite a few. I could see the vague reflection of a stressed me breaking into a little grin on the damp window pane, as well as my surroundings. I became lost in admiring the lovely shower for a few moments before reality struck me hard.

Next: Some complexity doesn't earn its keep.

When you say the same thing twice, for example, that repetition adds complexity without adding meaning.

So we don't need "big, large"--they both mean the same thing, so we can lose one of them.

We don't need "rhythmical musical tune"--there's redundancy across those three words. A tune is rhythmic and musical. Music is rhythmic. They're not perfect synonyms of one another, but they're so similar that we don't need all three.

And often weakeners or intensifiers add complexity without adding much meaning. I argued that you don't need both big and large, but do you really need either of them? Do you need the explanation that the view is blocked "to some extent" or can you trust the reader to understand that since the curtains are moving, the blockage isn't complete? Does the reflection need to be vague? Does the grin need to be little? Does the reality need to strike hard or can it just strike?

And, adjectives--when you have two or three, do you need them all? Do we need to know that the curtains are slick and blue and that it's navy blue? Do we need to be told that the glass pane is closed or can we trust the reader to realize that?

Maybe you do need some of these. But think about each one, and consider whether each one earns its keep.

So I do some more trimming:

The sky seemed like a pool of grey smoke. The weather was cool, moist. A fresh, earthy smell hung in the air.

I peered through a window covered in curtains that swung to and fro in time with the movement of the minibus, blocking my view. Rain droplets drizzled onto the glass with a light tinkle, creating a music perceived by quite a few. I could see the reflection of a stressed me breaking into a grin on the damp window pane, as well as my surroundings. I became lost in admiring the shower for a few moments before reality struck me.

I have a few more issues, but they're no longer general--they would come down to a specific critique of the passage, and any changes I made would replace your voice with mine.

  • Thanks for going through my write-up so thoroughly! Well, this question is from long, long ago and this was just an attempt to rework on its issues. I wasn't expecting this to suddenly be reopened and get such attention. I was new here then and didn't know too well how to frame a proper question. I'm not still 12 (I'm 14 now, in fact) and now this piece is something I'm incredibly ashamed of. All the cringey stuff I wrote back when I was young and didn't know no better. I would never write something like this now. But thanks for your thoughtful comments! – Soha Farhin Pine Oct 15 '18 at 5:59
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I don't think you're going to like hearing this, but part of the problem with your writing is bad grammar. Now, English isn't your first language, and you're 12. It's perfectly OK for you to make mistakes. But the thing is, simple sentence structures are more forgiving. When you use more complex sentence structures, and there are issues with your grammar, it makes things harder to follow. For example,

I peered through the window with slick navy blue curtains, swinging to and fro to the movement of the minibus, blocking my view to some extent.

The subject of the first part of your sentence is "I" - "I peered". We expect this to continue being the subject of the sentence, but it is the curtains of course which are "swinging to and fro". The sentence should have been

I peered through the window with slick navy blue curtains, which where swinging to and fro to the movement of the minibus, partially blocking my view.

(I'm sorry, I don't know why "to some extent" sounds unnatural to me in this context. Perhaps somebody else can explain.)

Complex sentences and many descriptions are OK, as far as writing styles go. They create a tone that's slow and measured, more befitting a polite 19th century breakfast than a tense combat scene, but there's nothing wrong with that. But if you're going to demand extra work on the readers' part by giving them complex structures, you've got to give them good grammar and natural word choice. Otherwise, your writing really does become hard to follow.

You learn good grammar and good word choice through reading and through writing, getting comments on your writing, rinse and repeat. You're actually doing quite well. But as long as you're still struggling with the basics, breaking up the sentences, using simpler grammar, would make it easier for your text to be understood.

  • Thanks for going through my write-up so thoroughly! Well, this question is from long, long ago and this was just an attempt to rework on its issues. I wasn't expecting this to suddenly be reopened and get such attention. I was new here then and didn't know too well how to frame a proper question. I'm not still 12 (14, in fact) and now this piece is something I'm incredibly ashamed of. All the cringey stuff I wrote back when I was young and didn't know no better. I would never write something like this now. But thanks for your thoughtful comments! – Soha Farhin Pine Oct 15 '18 at 5:59
0

Your original question was about how to avoid writing complex sentences, and, as a couple of people have already intimated, perhaps you shouldn't. As I mentioned, I struggle with the same problem. I resolve it with editing, which I haven't done much of for my current work. Every time I re-read it, I look for opportunities to trim words, re-write a sentence, or "tighten things up". The re-writes of your passage provided by Chris Johns and RamblingChicken above are, to my view, excellent representations of what you wanted to say. Using the guidance they provide, you can arrive at the same final product; something you'll be happy with.

0

The secret to voice in writing is that what you write needs to be matched to a) you, b) your audience, and c) the specific usage. There is no objective fact of the matter as to whether a given sentence is "too complicated." If it doesn't match you, your audience or the specific usage, it should be rewritten.

  • Audience is perhaps the easiest to understand. In the case of a school assignment, your audience is your teachers. What is appropriate writing in this case is whatever your teachers want. You just have to assume they have good reasons for their prescriptions --or even if not, you still must please them. In general, no sentence is good if it is a miss for its intended audience. Often --but not always! --that means making your writing more simple and direct.

  • Specific usage is also fairly straightforward. If you are writing poetry you'll write in a different manner than if you are writing a technical manual. You aren't producing good writing if your style doesn't match the setting.

  • That leaves the question of your own personal voice, which is generally just something that takes time to find or develop. But keep in mind that personal voice is no excuse for not matching audience and usage. In addition, a common issue for young or new writers is what is called an "affected voice," which basically means trying too hard to sound grown-up, or elegant, or sophisticated (or conversely, trying too hard to sound young, or primal or raw). With that said, it's perfectly ok as a new writer to try on different voices --eventually you'll find one that doesn't sound like trying too hard to be someone else.

In sum, my advice would be to focus now on writing clearly, simply and directly, without a lot of elaboration. As you advance as a writer and as a speaker of English, your style will shift to reflect your increased facility naturally.

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Your order of imagery is not in order. I presumed the window was closed due to bad weather. But you had me thinking a minibus was outside because it was said last. Many times all you have to do is cut and paste your thoughts into better order as if a picture is being painted in a growing understandable manner.

My view was blocked to some extent, as I peered through the window with slick navy blue curtains, swinging to and fro to the movement of the minibus. The sky seemed like a vast pool of grey smoke. The weather was cool, moist. A fresh, earthy smell hung on the air. Tiny rain droplets drizzled downward on the closed glass pane in a light tinkle, creating a rhythmical musical tune, no doubt perceived by us all. On the damp window pane, the vague reflection of my stressed face in my surroundings caused me to break into a little grin. For a few moments, I had become lost in admiring the lovely shower before reality struck me hard.

I was here looking for how to split a book (volume 1 of a 6-book series) into two smaller books and i guess it will be Vol.1, Part 1 and Vol.1, Part 2 so the other 5 books can remain in the plan. And i can still sell the whole volume 1. Then i noticed your question and wow what the heck does that say. Thought you were in a house looking at a minibus and i was wondering why the curtains were swinging. When i was 15 in 10th grade my English teacher corrected a piece on what a city blackout was like. And i said you can see the stars in the town, and she changed this to say above the town. But what i meant was see the stars FROM within the town because the street lights were out. So she destroyed my image i was drawing up. This is what people do to all books (bible too). And you have to see in your mind what the writer wants, not what you want to see. And so i corrected your writing by figuring YOU out. World has bad editors and they can ruin your book. I love Amazon books, you edit and reupload. Buy your own copy and strike away your mistakes.

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