How to Tighten Your Writing (Part 3): Beware the run-on sentence
In this third part of my four-part series on tight writing, it’s time to learn about the importance of sentence variety.
Too often the pacing of a paragraph or page is under-valued, disregarded in favour of what may seem more integral to strong writing, such as compelling verbs/nouns and strengthening dialogue.
Run-on sentences occur when writers fail to take a necessary pause within a phrase, or couple two ideas into a sentence that can extend to 50 or 60 words. There isn’t an industry standard on how long any sentence should be, but I’d contend that anything over 50 words deserves a harsh edit.
Why? Think of how a long sentence would read when spoken aloud. You don’t have time to take a breath in a sentence such as…
Mark wandered around the mall for another hour as his energy waned and his head began to ache and all he wanted to do was find the store where he bought that cellphone that was beginning to send him random creepy texts from a number he didn’t recognize and that began with an area code far from where he lived.
Phew, I’m breathless just writing that paragraph. Which it became, even though a sentence need not always extend that long. Consider this quick edit:
Mark wandered around the mall for another hour as his energy waned and his head began to ache. All he wanted to do was find the store where he bought that cellphone that was beginning to send him random creepy texts from a number he didn’t recognize; also, it began with an area code far from where he lived.
A period there, a semi-colon here, and suddenly the reader can find those natural pauses. Experienced writers realize how editing long sentences into shorter ones can also bring a different kind of rhythm to the work, which leads to my next point…
Pacing matters! Imagine reading a slew of long sentences. You would feel practically worn out by the end of that section. Now imagine you read a mix of long and short sentences, giving you variety in the pacing of that writing.
Here is an example of what I mean, via the beginning of a fascinating longread by journalist Jeff Maysh, and I bolded the short sentences: