If you’ve ever worked as a writer in advertising, this is a comment you’ve heard: “Make it shorter.”

Problem is, the comment is rarely ever accompanied with a direction of how much shorter, or which of those hard-won product attributes goes on the sacrificial altar of editing.

Make it shorter. Hmmm. What is the length of a string?

As always in Sky Diaries, one observation leads to another…and it always leads back to writing. In fiction, when is a sentence is too long? How long is too long?

According to Games with Words, a fascinating blog about language, this info:

“James Joyce long held the English record with a 4,391 word sentence in Ulysses. Jonathan Coe one-upped him in 2001 with a 13,955 word sentence in The Rotter’s Club. More recently, a single-sentence, 469,375 word novel appeared.”

I’ve also seen Victor Hugo’s name up there among the kings of word-strings. And Proust. But for those of us mere mortals at the page, what is workable? Or reasonable?

Seems like a no-brainer, yes? The sentence should be as long as it takes to get the thought out, right?

Ah yeah, you guessed it, another question rises.

What do we owe the reader? What do we owe to the question of what readers will actually—and literally—sit still for in this Byte-bitten age? When is what we demand of a reader too much of an ask? When is the über-long sentence an adventurous literary device, and when is it just a self-indulgent gimmick? And, more importantly, should such questions be entering our minds at all?

Okay, okay. What about this? If long can be too long, can short be too short? In my quest to express passages that reflect innermost thought, I make liberal use of fragments. Single words. This is the way we think, no?

As always, in this space, these are questions without answers. I have asked the question I started with, about the length of a string. Writing as a Zen koan. Solutions to be plucked out of the universe.

Isn’t that what writing is?

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