Whenever I teach an English course, I’m always amazed at the number of students who use run-on sentences. Not only does this diminish your credibility as a writer, it leaves your audience confused, frustrated, and most likely, bored. Many people feel that, “since I speak English, I can write papers in English.” This is akin to saying, “I have two hands, I am a concert pianist.” Learning how to use language is a craft that is not developed overnight. Since the most basic building block in writing is a sentence, it is important to use them efficiently and effectively.
1. Learn the difference between written communication and verbal communication.
In conversations, we have the tendency to insert caveats and tangents whenever we think of them'”even if they are not particularly important to the point of our story. This habit often translates over to academic writing, much to the chagrin of English teachers everywhere. To develop skills to recognize this, I often encourage students to label each sentence with five words or less, describing the gist of the idea. If this cannot be done, the chances are high that they are dealing with a run-on sentence. By breaking down each sentence to reflect one main idea, it helps to ensure that sentence structure is strong, and there is an intentional beginning and end point for each sentence. The result is a clearly thought out passage, which eliminates tangents.
2. Cut out extra words.
Although you could write enough long descriptive passages to make Henry James envious, don’t fall into this trap. Look for any modifiers and omit them. As a professor, I have often edited 25 word sentences down to 7 word sentences, resulting in a stronger, more focused statement. Unfortunately, I get the look-of-death from students who are trying to meet a word or page requirement. The benefit to this (besides more efficient writing) is that students now have the space to develop an idea further, which ultimately makes the paper stronger.
3. Rephrase your sentences.
After you’ve cut out extra words, you are probably left with a paper that contains sentences approximately the same length. Now you can go into your paper and add details, like transitions (e.g. participle phrases), semi-colons (which join together to related thoughts), and any other content you want to feature. This adds an aesthetic variance to the overall “tone” of your paper that makes your audience interested, because it doesn’t sound monotonous.
By adhering to the ideas behind these three steps, it will help distinguish your paper during your academic career. It develops a particular skill set, which admittedly, is not easy. Ultimately though, it will be worth it once you are receiving higher marks in your courses.