Long sentences take readers on a journey. A well-written long sentence expresses its meaning with flair and rhythm, reinvigorating readers.
This article discusses how to write a long sentence:
How to write a long sentence
Yes, long sentences can add poetic power and rhythm to your writing—as long as you know how to write a good one, without running out of breath.
Of course, shorter sentences are easier to gobble up for readers.
But that doesn’t mean long sentences should be banned.
Readability research suggests long sentences are fine, as long as you mix them with shorter ones.
An example of a beautiful long sentence
Long sentences get a bad rap.
Because many writers abuse long sentences, cramming too many thoughts into each sentence, muddling up their message and leaving readers confused.
So, the main trick to composing a beautiful long sentence is to communicate only one idea with clarity.
A couple of weeks ago, I read There There by Tommy Orange. The New York Times named it as one of the 10 best novels of 2018. It’s an ambitious novel about identity and about urban life of Native Americans.
Tommy Orange is a master of poetic sentences:
It’s important that he dress like an Indian, dance like an Indian, even if it is an act, even if he feels like a fraud the whole time, because the only way to be Indian in this world is to look and act like an Indian.
The sentence above contains 46 words. Despite this high word count, it’s easy to read because the sentence kicks off with the core of the sentence:
It’s important that he dress like an Indian
Then, the sentence branches out towards the end, but always staying on topic.
How to start a beautiful long sentence
Each sentence has a core. This core gives readers a quick sense of who and what a sentence is about, such as:
- The writer struggles
- The girl screams
- The train emerges
- The sentence becomes difficult
To make a long sentence easy to read, put the whole core of your sentence at the start, or close to the start.
Note how this sentence is difficult to read because the core is broken up:
A long sentence, in which the writer delays the core to the middle of the sentence or in which the core is broken up so readers have to remember how the sentence started, is more difficult to read.
This version highlights the core:
A long sentence, in which the writer delays the core to the middle of the sentence or in which the core is broken up so readers have to remember how the sentence started, is more difficult to read.
And here’s the easier variant with the whole core at the start:
A long sentence becomes difficult to read when you delay the core until the middle of the sentence or when you break up the core. A broken core forces readers to remember how the sentence started, making it hard to figure out the structure.
Putting the core at the front is a simple trick to structure a long sentence and help readers devour your writing without running out of breath.
Left vs. right-branching sentences
A long sentence that starts with its core is called a right-branching sentence.
Imagine the whole sentence on one line. The core of the sentence is at the start and it branches out towards the right.
As Roy Peter Clark mentions in his excellent book Murder Your Darlings a right-branching sentence sounds more natural and conversational than a left-branching sentence. In a left-branching sentence, the core is at the end. Here’s an example of a left-branching sentence:
After reading a blog post on writing long sentences, when she finally understood the difference between left branching and right branching sentences, and after she had learned how complicated it is to read a sentence where the core is broken up, and after she appreciated the rhythm of good writing, Henrietta started writing dazzling sentences and her words began to sing.
The core of the above sentence is: Henrietta started writing dazzling sentences and her words began to sing. This core is at the end of the sentence, so it’s a left-branching sentence.
A left-branching sentence is harder to comprehend. Its structure feels a little artificial and cumbersome—as if a writer wants to impress their readers with their writing ability.
So, if you want to delight readers with a natural writing style, don’t break up the core of your sentence and stick to right-branching long sentences—start with the core.
Savor the rhythm of a long sentence
Like a poem, a long sentence takes readers on a tiny journey, describing one thought, one feeling, one evocative scene.
You’ll appreciate a long sentence more when you read it aloud, savoring its rhythm. Here’s another example from There There—I’ve written it as a verse:
The train emerges,
rises out of the underground tube
in the Fruitvale district,
over by that Burger King
and the terrible pho place,
where East Twelfth and International almost merge,
where the graffitied apartment walls
and abandoned houses, warehouses,
and auto body shops appear,
loom in the train window,
stubbornly resist like deadweight
all of Oakland’s new development.
The sentence above describes one scene: how a train emerges in a rough, impoverished city district. The summing up of the graffitied apartment walls, abandoned houses, warehouses, and auto body shops gives you a feel of the overcrowded city life.
Note how the sentence starts with its core (the train emerges), then meanders through the rough buildings, and ends with a bang: stubbornly resist like deadweight all of Oakland’s new development.
Just like poetry, the start and the end lines of a long sentence are the most important. Here’s an even better example, showing the chaos and power of memories:
We are the memories
we don’t remember,
which live in us,
which we feel,
which make us sing
and pray the way we do,
feelings from memories
that flare and bloom
unexpectedly in our lives
like blood through a blanket
from a wound made by a bullet
fired by a man shooting us
in the back for our hair,
for our heads,
for a bounty,
or just to get rid of us.
Badly written long sentences drag on, but beautiful long sentences have energy, propelling readers from the start towards the end. As a reader, you feel a sense of anticipation wanting to know what comes next.
Long sentences can help define your voice
The rhythm of your sentences helps define your writing voice, and long sentences can play a strong role in creating that rhythm.
Tommy Orange’s long sentences create a slightly breathless rhythm. The sentences hurtle forward, creating a speedy reading experience.
But long sentences can also slow readers down.
Below follows an example from All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy:
They rode the horses at a gallop and they rode them at a trot and the horses were hot and lathered and squatted and stamped in the road and the campesinos afoot in the road with baskets of gardenstuff or pails covered with cheesecloth would press to the edge of the road or climb through the roadside brush and cactus to watch wide eyed the young horsemen on their horses passing and the horses mouthing froth and champing and the riders calling to one another in their alien tongue and passing in a muted fury that seemed scarcely to be contained in the space allotted them and yet leaving all unchanged where they had been: dust, sunlight, a singing bird.
As before, the sentence also starts with the core: They rode the horses; and then the sentence branches out towards the right.
But the rhythm is different. Read a sentence from Tommy Orange aloud, and then read one from Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy’s sentences are slower. There are no commas, but the word and makes you pause almost as much as when you start reading a new sentence.
Here’s another example from the same book by Cormac McCarthy:
Going back they’d walk the horses into the lake and the horses would stand and drink with the water at their chests and the stars in the lake bobbed and tilted where they drank and if it rained in the mountains the air would be close and the night more warm and one night he left her and rode down along the edge of the lake through the sedge and willow and slid from the horse’s back and pulled off his boots and his clothes and walked out into the lake where the moon slid away before him and ducks gabbled out there in the dark.
It’s often said that a long sentence is just two or more sentences merged together using a conjunction like and, or, or but. This isn’t always true. You can’t easily cut up Tommy Orange’s sentences. But it does work for McCarthy’s sentences. For instance:
Going back they’d walk the horses into the lake.
The horses would stand and drink with the water at their chests.
And the stars in the lake bobbed and tilted where they drank.
And if it rained in the mountains the air would be close and the night more warm.
One night he left her.
He rode down along the edge of the lake through the sedge and willow.
And he slid from the horse’s back.
And he pulled off his boots and his clothes.
And he walked out into the lake where the moon slid away before him.
Ducks gabbled out there in the dark.
I’ve just cut one long sentence into 10 short sentences. It changes the rhythm but you may find it easier to read, especially online.
Here’s one more example to savor the rhythm of McCarthy’s long sentences:
The following night she came to his bed and she came every night for nine nights running, pushing the door shut and latching it and turning in the slatted light at God knew what hour and stepping out of her clothes and sliding cool and naked against him in the narrow bunk all softness and perfume and the lushness of her black hair falling over him and no caution to her at all.
Like with everything in writing, there’s no one correct way to write a long sentence. But you’ll help your readers if you put the core at the start, and then expand the sentence.
Next, read your sentences aloud to appreciate the rhythm, and find your own voice.
When to use a long sentence
Tools like the Hemingway app encourage users to chop up all long sentences.
But an app doesn’t hear the rhythm of a sentence, like humans do.
And an app doesn’t understand the intense emotion of a long sentence. It doesn’t understand how a long sentence spurs readers on towards the last word, and then on to the next sentence. It doesn’t even understand how varying sentence length creates a pleasant rhythm.
Of course, there’s a difference between being engrossed in a novel, like There There, and reading online.
Online readers are often in a hurry, and they’re easily distracted. So, choose where to place long sentences carefully. Especially at the start of a blog post, keep your sentences short.
Once you’ve captivated readers, experiment with a couple of longer sentences. Read aloud to hear the rhythm and pay attention to how the sentence looks on screen—large blocks of texts can put readers off. So, don’t overdo it.
You’re the writer, you’re in charge
Don’t write a long sentence to show off your grasp of grammar.
Don’t write a long sentence to impress your readers.
Instead, write a long sentence to express an idea with power and rhythm.
A long sentence (…) can put the reader on edge a little, so long as this does not feel like its main point, so long as it feels as if the sentence has no ulterior motive other than the giving of its own life-delighting self. This is what readability scores will never tell you. They deal only with reading ease, not the knottier, exacting pleasures of expectancy and surprise, the teasing way that long sentences suspend the moment of closure.
~ Joe Moran
8 more examples of long sentences
1. A long sentence by James McBride
Note how this long sentence from Deacon King Kong by James McBride describes chaos:
He landed on his back on the concrete, coughed a few times, then rolled onto his stomach and began choking, desperately trying to rise to his hands and knees as the stunned boys around him scattered and the plaza collapsed into chaos, flyers dropping to the ground, mothers pushing baby carriages at a sprint, a man in a wheelchair spinning past, people running with shopping carts and dropping their grocery bags in panic, a mob of pedestrians fleeing in terror through the fluttering flyers that seemed to be everywhere.
The core of the sentence above is: He landed on his back, then the sentence branches out to the right, first describing what happens to the “he,” then describing the chaos around him.
2. Another long sentence by James McBride
This is another sentence from Deacon King Kong:
You lived a life of disappointment and suffering, of too-hot summers and too-cold winters, surviving in apartments with crummy stoves that didn’t work and windows that didn’t open and toilets that didn’t flush and lead paint that flecked off the walls and poisoned your children, living in awful, dreary apartments built to house Italians who came to America to work the docks, which had emptied of boats, ships, tankers, dreams, money, and opportunity the moment the colored and the Latinos arrived.
The long sentence above also starts with its core: You lived a life of disappointment and suffering, and then the sentence branches out, describing the circumstances of that life. Note how the repetition of the phrase didn’t adds rhythm in the middle of the sentence.
3. An example by Elif Shafak
The sentence below is from Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World. Note how it uses vivid imagery to describe a busy market place:
Young women in miniskirts walked arm in arm; drivers catcalled out of car windows; apprentices from coffeehouses scurried back and forth, carrying tea trays loaded with small glasses; tourists bent under the weight of their backpacks gazed around as if newly awake; shoe-shine boys rattled their brushes against their brass boxes, decorated with photos of actresses – modest ones on the front, nudes on the back.
Thanks to the semicolons (;), this sentence feels less hurried than the sentences written above by James McBride. Semicolons create slightly longer pauses than commas. The semicolons connect sentence parts that could have been complete sentences such as: “Young women in miniskirts walked arm in arm.” And: “Drivers catcalled out of car windows.” This makes it easier to read this sentence; it doesn’t feel that long.
4. A long sentence by Nick Cave
This long sentence is from The Red Hand Files #3:
But still you write, because over the years you have learned—midst the nonsensical hieroglyphics you compulsively scrawl in your notebooks, the dumb single lines that stare contemptuously back at you, the song titles that excite you then lose their magic the next time you look at them, the half-baked and derivative ideas, the stolen lines, the Freudian doodles, the desperate over-egged metaphors and lunatic, pencil-snapping, last-ditch attempts at something, my God, anything—you have learned to hold fast and trust.
The above sentence starts with its core: But still you write. But the next part is broken up: Because over the years you have learned—…—you have learned to hold fast and trust. Cave helps the reader not to get lost by repeating you have learned.
This sentence may be slightly more difficult to read but it also communicates just one core message: Despite all the hardship, you still write because you have learned to hold fast and trust. The summing up of all the details on the hardship make an emotional, chaotic impact, giving a vivid impression of a writer’s life.
5. A long sentence by James Rebanks
The following sentence is from English Pastoral by James Rebanks:
With hindsight, I can see that our farm was full of animals and places that defied my father’s and grandfather’s best efforts to tame them: the stack-yard full of old machinery, chest-deep in nettles; forests of tangled thorns, like those that grew around the castles in fairy tales, in the abandoned quarry by the road, where bullfinches sang from the thickets, their barrel chests a bright plum colour; rotting tree trunks at the top of the yard that had never been ripped out, and were now crumbling and full of red ant nests; the edges of the common land where the cows grazed, scruffy and half-wild; and even the fields of barley and oats were speckled with poppies and weeds, the pastures were full of thistles, and the hay meadows, by late June, were full of wild flowers.
The core of the sentence above is almost at the start: I can see, making it easy to understand the sentence. After the colon (:) the sentence describes the messiness and beauty of the farm.
6. An example by Benjamin Myers
In his book The Offing, Benjamin Myers writes about observing young women at the beach in Northern England, just after the Second World War:
In time they would leave their various states of repose to return home – to factory jobs, perhaps, or secretarial college; to overbearing fathers, to errant boyfriends or fast-talking fiancés, and then, perhaps, to dreary husbands; to sunless shifts behind desks or on factory floors; to shortening autumn days and long winter nights in dance halls and cafes with steamed-up windows and the stale lingering stink of tobacco smoke, hair oil, decaying English teeth and damp woollen coats.
The sentence above ends with the strong sensory impression of the smells of tobacco, hair oil, decaying teeth, and damp woollen coats.
7. A long sentence by James McBride
In The Color of Water, James McBride describes how his mother, who’s never given a speech in her life before, begins her speech, stops, clears her throat, and then starts again:
And this time she plows forward, reckless, fast, like a motorized car going through snowdrifts, spinning, peeling out, traveling in circles, going nowhere, her words nearly indecipherable as she flies through the stilted speech in that high-pitched, nervous voice.
This sentence has no semicolons (;) and no colons (:), just commas (,). Its rhythm feels fast, hurtling readers towards the end. This sense of things running out of control is amplified by the strong verbs (plows, spinning, peeling).
8. A long sentence by Niall Williams
In his book This Is Happiness, Niall Williams describes a drunk bicycle trip that ends in a crash landing:
‘O ho now!’ I shouted, both of us happy as heathens beneath the warm breath of the night sky and pedalling now in the boy hectic of blind momentum and nocturnal velocity so we missed the turn at Crossan’s went straight and straight on and straight in through Crossan’s open gate and across the wild bump-bump-bump and sudden su-su-su suck of their bog meadow where my front wheel sank in a rushy rut and I and a cry and a jet of brown vomit were projected out over the handlebars and flew glorious for one long and sublime instant before landing face-first in the cold puddle and muck of reality.
Just like the bicycle trip ends in a crash landing, sentence itself seems to crash towards its ending—there are almost no punctuation marks!
This sense of acceleration and crashing is increased by the repetition of the word straight in the middle of the sentence (straight and straight on and straight in), and also by the onomatopoeic phrases (the wild bump-bump-bump and sudden su-su-su suck) that make you feel like you’re hearing, witnessing, even experiencing this mad bicycle ride.
The form of the sentence, its rhythm, and the sounds of the words, help express its meaning.
Books mentioned in this post:
- There There by Tommy Orange—highly recommended
- All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy—highly recommended
- First You Write a Sentence. by Joe Moran—highly recommended
- Murder Your Darlings and Other Gentle Writing Advice from Aristotle to Zinsser by Roy Peter Clark—highly recommended
- Deacon King Kong by James McBride—highly recommended
- English Pastoral by James Rebanks—recommended
- The Offing by Benjamin Myers—highly recommended
- This Is Happiness by Niall Williams—recommended