Proust, Hemingway and Writing Apps

I’ve just been reading The Wave in the Mind, a wonderful collection of essays by Ursula Le Guin. The essays are insightful and often very funny, and I was particularly pleased to see Le Guin write in celebration of long, luxuriant sentences.

Amongst those who dish out writing advice, there is often the claim that short sentences are to be preferred. There are even apps that can help you write shorter, punchier sentences, such as the Hemingway App, which offers to make your writing “bold and clear”.

However, when I read fiction, I often find that there is something a bit wearying about short and punchy sentences (I am one of the few who probably prefers pre-Lish Carver to the weird, boiled-down post-Lish Carver). For a long time, I’ve not been sure why it is that I get irritated by this taste for short sentences, but now I think that Le Guin puts her finger on it. It’s the exasperating manliness that seems to go with the territory. Here’s Le Guin on beards, manliness and sentence-length.


What it comes down to, I guess, is that I am just not manly. Like Ernest Hemingway was manly. The beard and the guns and the wives and the little short sentences. I do try. I have this sort of beardoid thing that keeps trying to grow, nine or ten hairs on my chin, sometimes even more; but what do I do with the hairs? I tweak them out. Would a man do that? Men don’t tweak. Men shave..


Instead of this machine-gun rat-a-tat-tat of short, manly sentences, Le Guin favours setting up a rhythm across a text as a whole, playing with sentence length as a way of playing with the attention of the reader. Novelist Emma Darwin also talks about rhythm in her excellent, thoughtful blog on the subject of sentence length. I recommend that you read it now.  Darwin writes about the “stress and slack” of longer sentences, the interlocking rhythms that you can set up when you let thoughts, images and ideas stretch out more luxuriantly. “Of course there’s a place for short sentences,” she writes, “but unless there’s a positive reason to stop dead every few words, I want every sentence to move the reader on to a very slightly different place from where we started.”

It may be that all of this is a matter of taste; and if you want to write short sentences, I don’t really mind. They are only sentences, after all. But just for balance, I’d like to see somebody inventing an app that channels the spirit of Marcel Proust. I don’t know quite how it would work, but perhaps it be something like this: you feed in a chunk of text, and if the app deems your sentences to be too short and “punchy”, it gives you some practical advice for remedying the situation, such as putting aside your hunting-rifle, or going to lie in a cork-lined room, foppishly eating madeleines, until you have cultivated sufficient langour to pick up the pen once more.



As a scientist I was taught to write in the passive voice all the time: “it was observed…” “1g of sodium bisulphate was added…” “it was concluded that… ” and so on. The I started writing in the Humanities and the passive voice was frowned upon. But now I know whole websites dedicated to trashing the idea that the passive voice should be avoided. It was a relief, I can tell you. But I still get red-pencilled by editors.

Journalists write in short sentences because it keeps the measured reading age of their prose down: they write to 9-12 year old reading standards because the average person doesn’t progress much beyond that level. Proust presumably wrote for adults who continued to develop the skill of reading. I suppose it comes down to who one is writing for. Formulas are generally the death of good writing.

We compose our writing in order to create an image in the mind of the reader. No good artist paints by numbers, why should any writer write by numbers?


A good example of this sort of writing is Gene Wolfe. Earlier in his career he started off with longer sentences, more in the Proustian vein, and gradually became shorter, more dialogue heavy. Sad, really.

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