The written word is a unique art form in its own right. Yet while “good art” is subjective, there are ways that a well-written sentence can be objectively judged; is it effective in its message, or simply elegant in delivery? Let’s examine the merits of, and differences between these two styles.
We may be able to measure effectiveness more objectively than we can measure elegance, but determining how effective writing is remains largely a matter of personal taste.
Effective Sentences: Satisfying the Reader’s Need for Information
Effective writing is writing that shapes, satisfies, and anticipates a reader’s informational and emotional needs; guides the reader’s thinking; and implicitly assures the reader that he or she is in good hands.
This is a transcript from the video series Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
One assumption shaping the approach to learning how to write is, unless the situation demands otherwise, sentences that convey more information are more effective than those that convey less. Sentences should anticipate and answer more questions than the reader may ask by bringing ideas and images into clearer focus with useful details and explanations. Those that are less clearly focused and offer fewer details are not as effective. In practice, this means that we will generally value longer sentences over shorter sentences, as long as the length accomplishes some of those important goals just mentioned.
“Omit needless words” is great advice, but not when it gets reduced to the belief that shorter is always better…
Many of us have been exposed over the years to the idea that effective writing is “simple and direct,” a term generally associated with William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s legendary guidebook, The Elements of Style. We may remember some of the slogans from that book, such as “Omit needless words.” However, Strunk concluded his discussion of that mandate with this all-important qualifier: “This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or that he avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
Strunk’s concern is specifically with words and phrases that do not add propositions to the sentence, like “owing to the fact that” in place of “since.” Omit needless words is great advice, but not when it is reduced to the belief that shorter is always better. “Needless” doesn’t mean removing any word to still have the sentence make sense.
Learn more about control of syntax
Faulkner versus Hemingway
William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway are two famous writers who’s distinctive writing styles illustrate subjectivity in elegant and effective writing. I’d like to believe that even Professor Strunk and certainly E. B. White would not have tried to edit Faulkner out of existence. When Hemingway, in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” writes of an old waiter, “He disliked bars and bodegas,” few of us would argue that his sentence is not simple, direct, and not free of needless words.
But when Faulkner writes about the young protagonist in “Barn Burning,” it’s difficult to see how Strunk and White’s mandate might apply:
The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish—this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of the blood.
It’s unclear what may or may not be needless in this particular sentence, but the writing is certainly not simple and direct. Start cutting out words and simplifying the syntax in Faulkner’s sentence, and the reader misses the boy’s complex thinking that haunts him throughout the story.
But even Hemingway, the poster boy for simple and direct writing, reminds us that a simple and direct sentence is not the same as one that is simplistic and short, as demonstrated by this line from “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”:
In the daytime, the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference.
Strunk and White do a great job reminding us to avoid needless words, but they don’t begin to consider all the ways more words might actually be needed. In many cases, we need to add words to improve our writing, as Faulkner so frequently does, rather than try to pare our writing down to some kind of telegraphic minimum, as is frequently the case with Hemingway.
Learn more about grammar and rhetoric
Elegant Sentences: Prose Style
Most of us can agree on whether writing is effective, although we may disagree widely about whether one kind of effective writing is preferable to another. Elegant writing is much harder to agree on; indeed, the implication of Strunk and White and a number of other guidebooks on writing suggest that elegant writing is gaudy, overly lush, opulent, mannered, and therefore should be avoided.
Here we are referring to “elegant prose style” in the same way mathematicians refer to the elegant solution to a math problem. Elegant solutions in math are the most direct routes to solving a problem by taking the fewest number of steps with the simplest, neatest, or cleanest response to a problem, regardless of the problem’s complexity. It’s crucial to understand that writing problems are very different from mathematical problems.
As the historian Jacques Barzun reminds us, “Language is not an algebra,” and there is no single right answer to any given predicament with words.
As the historian Jacques Barzun reminds us, “Language is not an algebra.” There is no single right answer to any given predicament with words. In writing, elegance is indeed a matter of efficiency. We need to remember, however, that the problems a writer attempts to solve have an emotional or affective dimension not generally associated with mathematics.
Elegant sentences are those that efficiently accomplish what the writer wants them to accomplish. In a math problem, there may be only one elegant solution; in writing, there may be many different elegant solutions to a problem we address with language. We might think of elegant writing as writing that is unusually effective.
Learn more about prose rhythm
Suffice to say, there may not be that much difference between effective writing and elegant writing. The two terms may be inextricably wrapped up with each other. Both terms are subjectively relational, having to do with the impact writing has on a reader, as well as how the reader experiences writing, rather than being objectively describable or prescribable.
Both Hemingway and Faulkner strike me as elegant writers because they’re so good at accomplishing what they set out to do.
When we refer to sentences as effective or as elegant, we refer to what they do, rather than to the parts they consist of. No amount of sophisticated vocabulary or complicated syntax can make a sentence effective or elegant unless that sentence accomplishes its intended task.
Both Hemingway and Faulkner are elegant writers because they’re good at accomplishing what they set out to do. Each writer found the elegant solution to the problems he wanted to write about.
Common Questions About Writing Effective Sentences
An effective sentence communicates an idea with clarity. It does not contain unnecessary words, but it does contain enough detail to paint a vivid picture.
To write an effective sentence, think about your goal and what you are trying to communicate to your reader. Avoid using too many “and’s” or “but’s” as this will make your sentence difficult to follow.
To write an attractive sentence, use vivid, captivating details—the more specific, the better. At the same time, you do not need to use overly sophisticated vocabulary or syntax.
To write a powerful sentence, use active voice, strong verbs, and sensory details. Eliminate repetitive or unnecessary words and phrases.