Readers: take a look at the following sentence from Paul Gruchow's book The Necessity of Empty Places:
Without warning you will suddenly, at Chamberlain, South Dakota, encounter the Missouri River, fat and lazy behind its succession of dams and tucked into a deep and narrow valley beneath dramatic bluffs as naked in their thin raiment of short grasses as newborn bear cubs.
What's wrong with this sentence? The short answer: lots.
1) It's too long.
This sentence contains 45 words, a simile, a conjunction, two prepositional phrases and two parenthetical clauses. It's too long and too complicated. Don't bury your readers under ten pound sentences, it's cruel.
2) It's convoluted.
This sentence contains two excellent examples of convoluted writing. First:
...you will suddenly, at Chamberlain, South Dakota, encounter
This throws readers for a full loop. Why? Because the parenthetical clause at Chamberlain, South Dakota is illogically placed. Better to say:
Without warning, at Chamberlain, South Dakota, you will suddenly encounter the Missouri River.
Bonus points for omitting the needless word suddenly. The preposition Without warning renders it redundant.
Let's examine the second half of the sentence for an even better example of convoluted writing. See words in bold below:
...fat and lazy behind its succession of dams and tucked into a deep and narrow valley beneath dramatic bluffs as naked in their thin raiment of short grasses as newborn bear cubs.
It's odd to say the least to place the distracting phrase in their thin raiment of short grasses between the first and second parts of a simile. This is terrible style.
3) Note the split verb/adverb pair.
Okay. Let's return to the phrase you will suddenly, at Chamberlain, South Dakota, encounter.
This phrase isn't just convoluted. It contains a high school level grammatical error: a split verb/adverb pair. For whatever reason, this author slapped the parenthetical clause at Chamberlain, South Dakota between the adverb/verb pair suddenly and encounter. This doesn't just confuse readers--it also ruins the sentence's cadence.
4) Punctuation helps.
Yes, there are some desultory commas in the first portion of this sentence, but once you get to the phrase fat and lazy you're on your own. There's no punctuation at all to help you identify clauses, breaks or pauses. The reader gets the privilege of untangling the author's ideas.
Two places where commas would help: after Without warning (to help the reader identify this as a prepositional phrase) and after succession of dams (to give the reader a chance to breathe). Punctuation helps readers. Use it once in a while.
Is it possible to fix a sentence like this? Here's my attempt to repair it, while honoring and maintaining the author's style and voice:
Without warning, at Chamberlain, South Dakota, you will suddenly encounter the Missouri River, fat and lazy behind its succession of dams, and tucked into a deep and narrow valley beneath dramatic bluffs as naked as newborn bear cubs in their thin raiment of short grasses.
Look, The Necessity of Empty Places is not a bad book, at least in the context of conservation and environmental literature. (Hey, I love the environment too, but let's be honest: this genre tends to gush purple meandering prose). But please, be careful flinging sentences like this at your readers--they might harm the environment still more by throwing your book away. Once again, simple writing is almost always the best writing.
One final thought. This is a professionally published book written by a well-regarded author. And yet you can write better than this. Get going.