Elegant and Effective Sentences

Transcript of a lecture by Professor Brooks Landon. The University of Iowa

Writing well is, at heart, all about writing well-crafted sentences. Sentences are alive. We experience them in time, and we react to their unfolding as they twist and turn, challenging us, teasing us, and surprising us as we read them.

photograph of a Lady Writing Snetences into a Notebook Diary

Let’s look at the phrase “elegant and effective writing.” While we may be able to measure effectiveness more objectively than we can measure elegance, determining how effective writing is remains largely a matter of personal taste. Let’s investigate these two important terms.

Effective Sentences: Satisfying the Reader’s Need for Information

Effective writing is writing that anticipates, shapes, and satisfies a reader’s need for information. Effective writing guides the reader’s thinking, satisfies the reader’s need for essential information, and implicitly assures the reader that he or she is in good hands, reading prose by a writer who anticipates both the reader’s informational and emotional needs.

Accordingly, one of the assumptions shaping our approach to learning how to write will be that, unless the situation demands otherwise, sentences that convey more information are more effective than those that convey less. Sentences that anticipate and answer more questions that a reader might have are better than those that answer fewer questions. Sentences that bring ideas and images into clearer focus by adding more useful details and explanation are generally more effective than those that are less clearly focused and that offer fewer details. 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 we have 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 Strunk and White’s legendary guidebook, The Elements of Style. Or we remember some of the slogans from that book, such as “Omit needless words.” Unfortunately, it’s a lot harder for us to remember that 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.” Indeed, 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 gets reduced to the belief that shorter is always better, or that “needless” means any word without which the sentence can still make sense.

Faulkner versus Hemingway

dual portraits of Faulkner and Hemmingway
William Faulkner (left) and Ernest Hemmingway (right)

I like William Faulkner as well as I like Ernest Hemingway, and I’d like to believe that even Professor Will 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 and direct and not free of needless words. But when Faulkner writes about the boy who’s the protagonist in “Barn Burning,” it’s hard to see how Strunk and White 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.

I’m not so sure about what may or may not be needless in this particular sentence, but simple and direct it most certainly is not. Start cutting out words and simplifying the syntax in Faulkner’s sentence and we’ll miss the complex thinking that haunts the boy throughout the story and leads him ultimately to betray his father to keep him from burning another barn.

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 we can see 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.

To put this another way, Strunk and White do a great job of reminding us to avoid needless words, but they don’t begin to consider all the ways in which 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.

Elegent Sentences: Prose Style

This is a transcript from the video series Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft. It’s available for audio and video download here.

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 for us to agree on, and, indeed, the implication of Strunk and White and of a number of other guidebooks about writing might be that elegant writing is gaudy writing, overly lush, opulent, and 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. In fact, elegant solutions in math are the most direct routes to solving a problem, taking the fewest number of steps, offering the solution that is seen as the simplest, neatest, or cleanest response to a problem, no matter how complex the problem is. It’s crucial that we understand, however, 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,” and there is no single right answer to any given predicament with words. In writing, elegance is indeed a matter of efficiency, but we need to remember that the problems a writer attempts to solve have an emotional or affective dimension not generally associated with mathematics. Accordingly, elegant sentences are those that efficiently accomplish what the writer wants them to accomplish, and while there may be only one elegant solution to a math problem, there may be many different elegant solutions to a problem we address with language.

All of which is simply to say that there may not be that much difference between writing we find effective and writing we find elegant, and the two terms, much as is the case with form and content, may actually be inextricably wrapped up with each other. Indeed, we might think of elegant writing as writing that is unusually effective. Both terms, however, are subjectively relational, having to do with the impact writing has on a reader, with the way 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, and no amount of sophisticated vocabulary or complicated syntax can make a sentence effective or elegant unless that sentence accomplishes the task it was intended to accomplish. Both Hemingway and Faulkner strike me as elegant writers because they’re so good at accomplishing what they set out to do. It’s hard to imagine the writer who could out-Hemingway Hemingway or who could out-Faulkner Faulkner, and attempts to do so generally seem humorous, as each found the elegant solution to the problems he wanted to write about.

From the lecture series Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft
Taught by Professor Brooks Landon, University of Iowa