- Books, Literature, and Writing
Avoiding Run-On Sentences
The Problem with Run-On's
Run-on sentences. A reader’s worst nightmare. Well… Okay, maybe not every reader’s worst nightmare, but they are a bit of a headache to deal with, and not many people have the patience to plow through them.
As you probably already know, run-on’s are sentences that just do not end. They stretch on for lines at a time and unless they are written remarkably well, they tend to leave readers confused and frustrated. It can be very difficult to absorb all the information packed into a run-on, and it’s very easy for these sentences to negatively affect your writing. They are the sworn enemy of readers everywhere.There’s probably some piece of “wartime” wisdom out there that says the best way to combat an enemy is to understand them. So, to combat run-on sentences, what you need to understand is this: they don’t allow readers the chance to breathe.
Understanding Your (Written) Enemy
I’ve found that the best way to catch run-on sentences is to write without worrying about them. Yep. Without worrying about them. At least, that’s what I do at first.
Once I have all my thoughts down, I go back and read over what I have written, and I read aloud. This is a great way to find run-on sentences. If, at any point, while reading aloud you find yourself out of breath, you know you’ve got yourself a run-on. You may not be sputtering and gulping for air, but if you need to take a quick breather without finishing a sentence, it may be time to insert a break. Your readers will thank you for it.Reading run-on sentences is mentally exhausting. Just as you run out of breath in the middle of reading a run-on aloud, readers run out of steam while reading them silently. I mean, really, don’t you find it a bit tiresome to find yourself faced with a sentence that is this long or longer and there’s no stopping point in sight but you push on because you know it has to end eventually and once you get to the end you’ll finally have a break and be able to sit back and absorb everything you’ve just read so long as you’re not completely and utterly exhausted in which case you’ll lose everything you just read and probably go back to read it again in hopes of being able to get it the second time, but really, there’s no use. It’s just too long.
Defeating Your (Written) Enemy
Now, if you’re reading this, you’ve done one of three things:
1) You read through that horrifying thing in the previous section and understood it all the first time though. You continued on your merry way with your reading and since this is next in the sequence of words, you’re now reading this. If this applies to you, please congratulate yourself. That’s rather impressive.
2) You read through that horrifying thing in the previous section but didn’t quite get it, so you went back and read it again. You might have gotten it the second time, but maybe it took you three tries. Or four. Or five. Or seventeen. It doesn’t matter, really. What’s important is that you went back and read through it again, and you (hopefully) understand my point by this time. Even if you don’t, you get an A for effort. That definitely required an impressive amount of effort to do.
3) You started to read that horrifying thing in the previous section, paused a little way in, considered it for a moment, and then skipped to this next part. Those of you who did this probably understand my point better than anyone else. And are probably not suffering from intense cravings for aspirin.
Whichever category you fall into, you’ve probably recognized that the last paragraph in the section above contains a run-on. It was no picnic to write, let me tell you, and it almost certainly was not a pleasure to read. Now, I could have given you the reader a few chances to breathe by adding a few strategically placed commas, but not only is that a lot less fun, it would also defeat the purpose of writing that monstrosity.
I have come across longer sentences than that in my reading, some of which contained breaks like commas or (properly used!) semicolons. It’s like adding rest stops for your reader. It gives them a chance to pause and breathe for a second, thus allowing them to absorb what you’re telling them before they continue on. That’s not a bad way to combat run-on’s, but a better idea is to break the one giant sentence into several little ones.A series of short, complete thoughts is much easier to absorb and fully understand than one steady, unbroken stream of words. You reader can pause and consider your meaning when they have the chance to stop. You want to give them that chance. It makes for a more enjoyable reading experience, and you may even find your writing strengthened when you take your reader into account.
Varying Your Writing
Now, you don’t need to write in short, staccato sentences all the time. It can get a bit annoying. I mean. Really. This, for example. It’s annoying. Everything’s short. There’s no variation. There’s no flavor. It’s dry. Boring. Short. All the time. And has the tendency to make your reader pause a bit too much, which can be irritating.
So, what you want is some variation in length. Mix it up a
bit. Use short sentences to underscore a point since they have the potential to
pack a punch, especially when they follow longer ones. They make things
interesting. A balance between the two will strengthen your writing and hold
your reader’s attention.