I Heart Indies

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Rule #7 Revisited

My friend Chris Bundy, who was at AWP with me when I wrote February 5th’s post, “9 Rules,” challenged me about rule number seven, “vary sentence lengths.” He didn’t object to the rule in principle, but questioned whether it were needed. “Isn’t that something you just do by instinct?” he asked. I agreed with him – at the time – and said that these rules were meant for fledglings, and contained advice that experienced writers such as he and I have internalized and now follow unconsciously. On reflection, however, I realize I do not agree with him; sentence variation is not something I do purely “on instinct” but at times must consciously manipulate.

I remember reading advice for poker players – I am an abysmal poker player – that if you choose to bluff based on instinct or what your “gut tells you,” you may feel improvisational and dangerous, but are actually apt to be a very predictable and ineffective bluffer. This is because instinct usually says to do the same things over and over again. Flying south in the winter, swimming upstream to spawn, burying eggs on the beach: these things probably seem daring, inventive, and original to the animals engaged in them, but to us they are predictability itself. Writing follows patterns and rhythms, but there has to be an element of surprising variation, too, and I’m not sure instinct alone can accomplish this. At least not for me. (Parenthetically, I’ll confess that jazz may be the exception. Does a jazz musician improvise by instinct or is there an element of deliberate reflection? I don’t know. But in any case, writing is more conscious an activity than music – writing is consciousness.)

Instinct will take me so far, but tends to lead into blind alleys sooner or later. For example, I know by instinct that a series of short, declarative sentences can create an unsettling, nervous mood.

He pulled a chair to the door and sat. It was five-ten. She got off at five and it was about a thirty minute drive. He checked the revolver. The chambers were loaded. With one hand, he popped the top on his beer and took a sip. He waited and listened.

I think that works pretty well; the problem is, about two sentences more of that and the reader’s going to get a gun of his own. It’s going to need, and need soon, a longer sentence to break the chain. Problem is, if I rely on instinct and instinct alone, I might churn out page after page like that, because short sentences are what’s needed in a this situation.

On the other hand, nothing can match the grace and subtlety of a long sentence with its delicate parallels and oppositions and contrasts, its way of suspending the point until the very last word: Samuel Johnson, the master of the long sentence, could string clause after clause, placing here a parallel phrase of statement, development, and thesis, and then balancing it with another phrase of counterclaim, deconstruction, and antithesis, finally arriving at the conclusion of whatever the hell it was he was driving at in the first place, no doubt believing that reading page after page of this sort of thing was an exquisite experience. It isn’t.

Maybe some writers know automatically just when a long sentence is needed and when a short one, but not me. I have to go back, re-read and question my original instincts. This to me is the very sine qua non of writing – creation is gut-level, a process that can’t be articulated, rising from a source that can’t be known. But revision, which is the part we call craft, is highly conscious, deliberative, intellectual.

So, yes, I do apply rule seven in a highly conscious way, at least some of the time. I apply all my nine rules consciously.

(I should have made that last sentence just a little longer.)

(Or else shorter.)


  1. What's wrong with short sentences? Even fragments. All the time. I dislike sentence variation. It dismays me. I become unhinged. When I read, I read for brevity. I like the short. I like to get punched. Punch me. Did you feel that? That was you punching me. Now who's the bully?

  2. Jamie Iredell, you are too damn funny