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Monday, 20 February 2017

A quest for simplicity by Sue Russell

Not long ago I came across a thread on social media, emanating from a writer in America, asking her fellow-writers if they preferred complex or simple sentence constructions. It reminded me of a discussion I had many years ago regarding the works of C.S.Lewis. I am an admirer of his and was trying to persuade my friend to read his books, but he complained, 'His sentences are far too long. By the time I get to the end I have to start again.' It's true there are some very long sentences to be found: I came across one recently that contained 78 words. For me, because it was all consummately logical and perfectly punctuated, it presented no problems, despite the proliferation of subordinate clauses. I then remembered a novel I'd been lent while in hospital, which caused increasing irritation such that the story was completely lost. The sentences were almost all very short - some only three or four words. To my eye and inner ear it read in jerky fits and starts.
So perhaps as a reader I do prefer more complex sentences; but as a writer I am trying to do the opposite. The more I write the more I want my writing to be limpid, almost transparent, allowing what is important - the story, and all that it entails - to be clear. I don't always achieve it, because (like many others reading this blog, I suspect) I have had a lifelong love of words. However, more and more now I am aiming for uncluttered simplicity. Against such a background the well-chosen word, phrase, sentence, or telling description, glows more richly.
But is simplicity also an artifice? As writers we are aware that dialogue and inner monologue which sound natural are anything but: they are a construct, a device, and some writers do it better than others. The very gifted poet and novelist Helen Dunmore comes to mind. From the four or five books of hers that I've read I've gleaned an impression of a particularly straightforward, unfussy style. Nevertheless her characters are memorable, her plots gripping and her settings finely evoked. So I'm asking myself, 'Is this something I can learn to do, or to do better?'
A former member of one of the critique groups to which I belong, someone who certainly didn't lack talent and who wrote mainly fantasy and science fiction, was prone to passages that bordered on the purple. In his attempt to dazzle with descriptions of alien scenes he gave me, for one, a kind of indigestion. He achieved the reverse of what he intended; the inner eye was blinded by his prose, which actually got in the way of the scene he was trying to evoke. This taught me something useful: the over-egged pudding makes you sick, and a gilded lily is no longer a lily at all. It may even be that we have divine endorsement for the cause of simplicity and naturalness. 'Look how the wild flowers grow,' says Jesus in Matthew 6. '...I tell you that not even King Solomon with all his wealth had clothes as beautiful as one of these flowers.'







Sue writes as S.L.Russell and has five novels out there in the usual places. A sixth is possibly in a very long pipeline. She lives in Kent and sometimes in France, has a web site www.slrussell.net and blogs at suerussellsblog.blogspot.com

6 comments:

  1. Beautifully put, Sue. I agree our sentence structure, and words, should not get in the way of the story

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  2. I think you're spot on here, Sue. I'm prone to over-complex sentences too (and too many similes, so I'm told) so I've been trying to discipline myself and simplify. Good post :)

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  3. Loved this Sue. I totally agree with you. I get frustrated that I have to teach my students to use subordinate clauses ad nauseum, in order for them to reach their targets, when sometimes a simple sentence would be much better. Decluttering my writing is as important to me as decluttering my home. Great post.

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  4. Thank you all for your comments

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  5. Thank you Sue. A review of my latest book has accused me of writing 'too simply'. I actually take that as a compliment! It was the deceptive simplicity of Hemingway's prose that led me towards being a writer.

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