I have also begun to notice that many college students could improve their writing dramatically merely by setting their sights on shorter sentences. Many students have somehow got the assumption that scholarly writing requires a certain tone of voice. I don’t know where this assumption comes from. I am inclined to blame it on the rhetorical posturing of well-meaning but fundamentally inept high school English teachers – the kind of teacher who promotes “critique” and “decoding” of “texts” instead of explanation and clarity of ideas. I do not blame these teachers. I hope they will still be allowed into heaven. I know they are only doing what they’re told. At any rate, whatever the source of this malaise, the symptoms are evident in the tendency of students to obfuscate simple ideas through a complexification of syntax, a multiplication of imprecise verbs instead of the selection of the one strong verb, and a deliberate substitution of polysyllabic words whose meanings are often vague and slippery for smaller ones whose meanings are plain and solid. It is all very anti-working-class. The student’s shame of his uneducated parents and their drab suburban home is transferred to a (deeper and more scandalous) shame of plain speech. Nothing good will come of this.
So I have been encouraging students to aim for shorter sentences that say exactly what you want to say, not for longer sentences that sound the way you would like to sound. And – physician, heal thyself – I’ve been trying to do it too.
Ben Myers praises the short, apt sentence, noting that he’s “been trying to use a greater variety of sentence types in my writing, and I have particularly been labouring to achieve good short sentences”: