How to Write Elegant Sentences
Most people, who have to deal with writing, want to improve their skills. But before you start looking for different tips on how to do that, you first need to get to the core of what writing is. What kind of writing is good and what makes a written piece bad? Why does one text move us deeply but another one we can't even finish reading? The easiest and at the same time the most difficult definition of writing is "a combination of sentences." Your ability to compose good and elegant sentences defines your ability to write well.
One might say that the elegance of a sentence will never determine its effectiveness. Most people associate the word elegant with literary prose and poetry but never academic or professional writing. However, there is a strong correlation between an elegant and an effective sentences. Let us look closely into both.
Elegant Sentences and Their Role
The purpose of effective sentences is hidden in the name itself - they need to have an effect on you. They aim to satisfy the reader's need for information, emotional response, or any reaction. As long as there is an effect present, the sentence has accomplished its mission.
Now let's look into the techniques of crafting an effective sentence. Contrary to the popular belief, longer sentences are more effective by their nature because they contain more information than the shorter ones. The assumption that shorter and more direct sentences are more productive for the reader has come to life in the guidebook The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. We are not trying to dispute the ideas discussed in the legendary book but instead offer to look deeper into what the authors say.
One of the main lessons that probably the majority of readers have carved into their memory is "omit all needless words." This might lead to the impression that the fewer words you use in a sentence, the better it is. However, this was not the author's conclusion in the end. Strunk says that it does not mean that the writer needs to avoid any details and focus only on the core of the subject, but it means that every word needs to have a mission. Writing without needless words does not require reducing a sentence to the minimal skeleton from which you can still grasp the meaning. It only means picking up words that play a role even when it results in a longer sentence.
Faulkner vs. Hemingway
William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway are two prominent figures in literature, and there will not be many people who would try to argue the effectiveness of their sentences. Especially not Strunk and White who know better. So when we read "He disliked bars and bodegas." from Hemingway, it's hard to disagree that it's a very direct and up-to-the-point sentence that makes perfect sense without any additional words.
And yet, then we stumble upon Faulkner's
"The streets are paved now, and the telephone and electric companies are cutting down more and more of the shade trees - the water oaks, the maples and locusts and elms - to make room for iron poles bearing clusters of bloated and ghostly and bloodless grapes, and we have a city laundry which makes the rounds on Monday morning, gathering the bundles of clothes into bright-colored specially-made motor cars: the soiled wearing of a whole week now flees apparition-like behind alert and irritable electric horns, with a long diminishing noise of rubber and asphalt like tearing silk, and even the Negro women who still take in white people's washing after the old custom, fetch and deliver it in automobiles."
No one would call this sentence short and straightforward, but it is also not likely that many readers would prefer to cut it down and remove some words. With sentences like this, their length makes a perfect sense because they convey a complex picture and describe many things happening at once without tiring the reader. You won't say that this sentence is ineffective despite its length.
Nevertheless, Hemingway also cannot be called the writer who uses exclusively short and direct sentences. They prevail, but the writer also brings diversity with more lengthy sentences like
"He looked at the sky and saw the white cumulus built like friendly piles of ice cream and high above were the thin feathers of the cirrus against the high September sky."
Looking at this example, we can conclude that even a writer, whose style is famous for short and simple sentences, cannot base his writing on them only. Effective writing needs to be diverse and elegant. Here is where the second term enters the discussion.
Elegant Sentences and How to Spot Them
When it comes to the effectiveness of a sentence, most people would come to the same conclusion - it is usually not that difficult to distinguish a good sentence from a bad one. However, once it is about the elegance of one, opinions will differ. What makes a sentence elegant? How is it different from being effective? Why do we even need elegant sentences?
Going back to the guidebook The Elements of Style and judging from the popular opinion, one can draw the conclusion that elegant sentences are ostentatious, flashy, lavish, and therefore, unnecessary in writing. It is also believed that an elegant sentence can only be present in literary writing and still in moderate amounts because they make texts too complex to read.
Now let's look into the meaning of the word "elegant" itself. Most people are familiar with the first meaning of this word, which is most commonly used about something attractive and well designed. However, once this adjective is paired with the word "idea," it acquires a different meaning - smart but simple. That is why when mathematicians talk about an elegant solution to a problem, they mean the fastest and easiest solution regardless of the complexity of the problem. In most mathematic cases, an elegant solution is also the one with the least number of steps that you need to take to come to the right answer.
Of course, writing is not math. These two diametrically opposite activities seem to have nothing in common because no writing situation has only one right answer contrary to a mathematics problem. Nevertheless, in both math and writing, elegance is about efficiency. The problems arise when you consider the fact that writing problems usually have more sides than the mathematics ones. Very often, the writer needs to meet the emotional needs of the reader, and then he or she again appeals to elegant sentences.
Based on this, we can conclude that elegant sentences are the ones that fulfill the role they need to fulfill according to the writer and the reader. In this context, elegance and effectiveness are homologous because they both aim for the result. The feature that will always make math different from writing is that while you have only one elegant solution for the first, the latter can have many elegant approaches the efficiency of which will always be opened for interpretation.
At the end of the day, elegant writing and effective writing are not distinguished by any differences. In fact, they are often intertwined to create one good piece of writing, and the reader is not capable to say where elegance stops and effectiveness starts. Another way to see elegant writing is to regard it as one that is extraordinary effective meaning that result is achieved through the elegance of words. Both terms, however, deserve to exist separately despite the fact that in their core they are defined by the impact on the reader.
One thing that is important to comprehend is that once a sentence is called effective or elegant, it's not about the words that are used there or the way they are combined, but it's about what these words do. If a sentence does not fulfill the desired role, no exquisite words or metaphors can make it elegant or effective. Both Faulkner and Hemingway are masterful writers because they are able to convey the idea and affect the reader regardless of the number of words their sentences have. In the end, each of them has found his own elegant solution for his own literary problem.