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Too many words

Like the criticism leveled at Mozart in Amadeus, “Too many notes,” the criticism at KUEditing of a Garrison Keillor article in The New York Times is too many words—145 in the opening sentence.

Here’s what Doug Ward, a fine fellow and a professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, said of it:

“I can only guess that the editors of the Times Book Review were either afraid to confront Keillor or were blinded by his fame. So the emperor was allowed to parade naked through the Book Review, creating a garish spectacle that had no place in print.

“The site was so abominable that it stopped me cold. I couldn’t read beyond the 145-word sentence, couldn’t read about the Harry Belafonte book Keillor was reviewing, couldn’t bring myself to read anything else in the Book Review.”

See what you think of it:

“Here is a gorgeous account of the large life of a Harlem boy, son of a Jamaican cleaning lady, Melvine Love, and a ship’s cook, Harold Bellan¬fanti, who endured the grind of poverty under the watchful eye of his proud mother and waited for his chances, prepared to be lucky, and made himself into the international calypso star and popular folk singer, huge in Las Vegas, also Europe, and a mainstay of the civil rights movement of the ’60s, a confidant of Dr. King’s, who lived for years in a U-shaped 21-room apartment on West End Avenue, but never forgot what he ran so hard to escape from, the four or five families squeezed into a few rooms, the smell of Caribbean food cooking, the shared bathroom, his father drunk, yelling, blood on his hands, beating his mother, and 'a terrible claustrophobic closet of fear.' ”

I read the sentence myself and didn’t scream, faint, or go blind. Though a bit lengthy for current tastes, it is grammatical and articulated. It is readable.

We may have lost some of our stamina as readers. Here, for example, is a 135-word paragraph plucked from William Hazlitt’s essay “On the Ignorance of the Learned”:

“An idler at school, on the other hand, is one who has high health and spirits, who has the free use of his limbs, with all his wits about him, who feels the circulation of his blood and the motion of his heart, who is ready to laugh and cry in a breath, and who had rather chase a ball or a butterfly, feel the open air in his face, look at the fields or the sky, follow a winding path, or enter with eagerness into all the little conflicts and interests of his acquaintances and friends, than doze over a musty spelling-book, repeat barbarous distichs after his master, sit so many hours pinioned to a writing-desk, and receive his reward for the loss of time and pleasure in paltry prize-medals at Christmas and Midsummer.”

And this is by no means unusually long for Hazlitt, who had a lot of breath in him.

My own long-standing advice to my charges and colleagues has been congruent with Professor Ward’s: Get to the point fast. I ask them, you know the sentence “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”? The creation of the universe has a ten-word lead. Why do you need more?

But still, one needn’t be doctrinaire. Perhaps it’s my familiarity with Mr. Keillor’s leisurely, long-spun monologues, but I can see some virtue in that opening sentence. He is, after all, reviewing a biography, and to sum up the elements of an entire life, and an eventful one at that, in 145 words is not a measly accomplishment.

I leave the point up to you, good people. What say you?



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:38 AM | | Comments (21)


Keillor's sentence flowed smoothly.

Keillor-bashing seems to be the hip thing, these days. Among other shots taken, he's accused of over-rating his own singing voice. My daughter-in-law declined to attend his show at Pier 6 with me because "He's full of himself." Perhaps it's Gk's fault. He looks as though he's just standing there in front of the microphone, talking...

I was ready for a stop about halfway through the Keillor sentence, so if I had been editing anybody else, I'd have suggested one after "King's"; the new sentence would have started with "He" instead of the "who" that is there.

But to suggest that length alone makes it "abominable" is preposterous.

I assume that Doug Ward never even attempted Faulkner....

Wow, it's so bad Ward had to retire to the fainting couch and actually COULDN'T READ MORE OF THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT oh noes.

Keillor has his faults but generating a bad long sentence out of ignorance or lack of clue ain't one of 'em. It's fine.

Can't imagine if/how Ward made it through 1666 or Infinite Jest.

Your quote from Hazlitt should still those who think ADD/ADHD was invented out of whole cloth in 1998.

"The site was so abominable"? Surely he meant to write "sight"?

As a Henry James fan, I enjoy baroque sentences, and I agree that Keillor's lede sounds like one of his monologues. Still, my editing fingers would have itched to interrupt the rolling rhythm with something more than commas, I confess.

It is hip to bash Garrison Keillor? Only with native Nerdistanis, for sure! Sentence is fine.

Mr. Ward might wish to avail himself of a popular remedy for hyperventilation: breathing into a paper bag. Keillor wasn't writing a news story; he was writing a book review. Yes, one should get to the point quite quickly in a news story. But a book review is not a news story. Keillor's long sentence does an admirable job of painting a picture, which is a good thing.

One of the primary goals of a writer is to find his voice. Keillor has succeeded. He found his voice some time ago; It works. The Hazlett quote describes my 18-year-ol son to a tee - as well as a few famous men like Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein. Shakespeare said that "brevity is the soul of wit." That works for hard news and signs warning you not to step off the platform in front of an oncoming subway train.

My sense is that Doug Ward is applying a news-story standard to a non-news item in a non-newspaper. The New York Times Review Of Books is NOT The New York Times, and can't be held to the same standard (and it's not as if the NYT holds to rigorous first-sentence-in-news-copy standards, anyway).

I don't care for the sentence, but I can't say it's bad or even illegible. My guess is that Ward has been hype-sensitized to this by years of thinning 50-word lede sentences in undergraduate news copy. That's only only apples and oranges, but turnips and plantains.

Save the outrage for something relevant to your discipline, Mr. Ward.

Doesn't bother me. Reads a lot like Keillor speaks, with the interest building as the sentence winds on. Now, if the interest had waned, whether the structure worked or not, I'd probably think it a failure. But for me, at least, it isn't.

By the way, thanks for crediting that "Too many notes" line to Amadeus, and not to Joseph II. Like almost all the good on-the-spot historical quotes, it's actually faux history.

While reading the sentence I could hear Garrison's voice in my head, and it rolled along, majestically. He has earned the right to be long-winded (and how about that breath control on the air?)

My immediate reaction was that it was time for Ward to reread Thoreau's Walden. 145? A triffle in comparison to some of the periodless expanses contained therein. Sentence length is not really an issue as long there is sufficient variety in contrast.

Looking at it from over here (the other side of the Pacific), not knowing or really caring who this Keillor person is, I think it could have done with some tidying up.The separate clauses seemed to ramble and, I think, lacked the syntactic structure that made your second example much easier to read.

Advice for Mr. Ward: Never - NEVER - pick up a book by Jose Saramago. It will kill you stone dead.

As a non-native though nearly fluent speaker of English, I lost track about halfway through. It may be grammatical, and it may flow smoothly to a native reader, but my mind gradually shut down well before the end was anywhere in sight.

If you don't need the readers that are unable or unwilling to puzzle through a sentence like that then it's fine I guess.

I've heard of Keillor, but am not familiar with his work.

I found the Hazlitt sentence very readable, the Keillor sentence not so much. Hazlitt seems in control of what he's doing, while, for me, Keillor's just rambling on.

"Rambling on" is exactly what Keillor does. The sentence is pure Keillor. It would be quite weird to read something written by him which conformed to the "rules" of a news article. I'm guessing that Ward is not a fan of Charles Dickens.

Perhaps Keillor's recent alleged rambling NY Times book review suffers more from too many commas, rather than "too many words".

Just kidding. Sans commas, I'm afeared any semblance of structural integrity that this 145-word montage of legendary Harry Belafonte's life displays, would be lost. And yet, maybe a well-placed semi-colon, or two, might have at least broken up the monotony.

I echo the earlier views of some of our posters that this free-flowing review exemplifies born-raconteur Garrison Keilor just being Garrison Keillor. Simple as that. This engaging stream-of-consciousness, bouncy narrative, stylistically, is not unlike some of his on-stage flights of folksy story-telling from his weekend NPR "Prairie Home Companion" broadcasts that he's been diligently orchestrating for over some three decades.

As one who has been perhaps justly accused of being majorly long-winded, and 'period' averse in some of my posts on this very site, I naturally have to defend Keillor's so-called "ramblings", in this particular instance.

Dahlink, I agree w/ your point re/ Keillor's on-air breath control, although he occasionally gives us listeners barely audible nasal exhales while talking---- just short of a snort, in my view; but which I find perversely endearing. For all this man must personally put into this ambitious production, week-in-and-week-out, one can understand how he just might, on occasion, be short of breath, or exhibit some labored breathing. Just sayin'.

I do truly marvel at his vocal skills w/ his broad baritone-to-tenor-soprano range, and his ability to sing sweet harmonies w/ his sundry guest performers. He may not have the greatest of voices, but we have to give him full marks for effort and enthusiasm. I especially like some of his gospel, hymnal renditions.

Admittedly, Keilor often goes out on a limb trying to capture a rhyming couplet when crafting a humorous self-penned ditty; but for me, those bits of awkward writing makes Keillor all the more self-effacing and charming.

Well I see that that old banana boat is pulling up into harbor, so 'I'm sad to say I'll be on my way', w/ Belafonte's catchy classic calypso refrain dancing in my cranium.

"Day delight and I want to go home."


P.S.: ------ I've been incommunicado for the past couple of weeks as I flew back to the Toronto environs (my old native stompin' grounds) to spend some quality time w/ my mum, brother, and friends, while taking in the colorful splendor of the Fall changing leaves. Mother Nature did not disappoint.

I was lurking on the "You Don't Say" site via my brother's Dell lap top, but didn't post. Great to be back, refreshed and ready to ramble. HA!

You can praise Keillor all you want, but this sentence does ramble to my ear, without the cadence of Hazlitt, or Dickens, for that matter. I'm quite sure if anyone else's name had been attached to it, it would not have survived unscathed.

The sentence is long and rambling, and lacks the cadence and control that we see in Hazlitt and in Dickens. I suspect if anyone else's name had been attached to it, it would not have survived in this form.


With all due respect, it appears Mr. Keillor wasn't the only one guilty of a superfluity of words.

I believe we got the gist of your argument re/ the alleged ramblings of Garrison Keillor relative to your stated preference for both Monsieurs Hazlitt and Dickens in the long-winded prose department, from your initial post. No real need to reiterate.

Frankly, I had to do a bit of a double-take on your next post, thinking it was identical to your earlier one, and that you perhaps had clicked on "Send", twice. Maybe I'm being too nitpicky here.

Oh well. Clearly you're not a huge Garrison Keillor fan, and it's evident that no outside cajoling, or defense of his NY Times lengthly introductory paragraph to his Belafonte book review could change your subjective viewpoint.

So say if the likes of journalists Bill Moyers, Charlie Rose, or Bill Lehrer had penned said Times review, would the editors at the highly-regarded 'Book Review' still give it a pass, leaving it, as you put it, "unscathed".

Catherine, I didn't think Garrison Keillor had that kind of intimidating literary clout to, in effect, deflect the editorial might of the astute editorial staff at the New York Times Book Review. But clearly you DO.

Guess they didn't want to stir up that notorious Wobegonian Lutheran wrath.


As usual, I'm late to the party, but at least that gives me the benefit of hearing the insights of preceding commenters.

Mr. Keillor's style is an acquired taste; one that, I must admit, I have never acquired. However, as with others here, I didn't see anything terribly wrong with the sentence.

My only grouse is a general one: I find it tedious when reviewers treat book reviews as venues for showing off their literary stylings, effectively relegating the book they're (ostensibly) reviewing to the role of a prop or a backdrop curtain. Perhaps there is some of that in Mr. Ward's complaint as well?

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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