Don’t try this at home:
She said I’m tired of begging God to overthrow my son, because all this business of living in the presidential palace is like having the lights on all the time, sir, and she had said it with the same naturalness with which on one national holiday she had made her way through the guard of honor with a basket of empty bottles and reached the presidential limousine that was leading the parade of celebration in an uproar of ovations and martial music and storms of flowers and she shoved the basket through the window and shouted to her son that since you’ll be passing right by take advantage and return these bottles to the store on the corner, poor mother.
That is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, from “Autumn of the Patriarch.” Let’s stipulate that none of us are Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He was a wordslinger of the highest order. He found poetry tailored in the very look of the sentence on the page, to say nothing of the rhythm as it plays off the tongue of your mind. Look at it again. Consider the theme his whirl of words form from words like “overthrow,” “uproar” and “begging.”
Now forget that you ever saw it. Let’s not try to write the way he does.
Instead, find good fortune in short, declarative sentences that come to a quick end and ask much less from our harried readers. For better or worse, our subscribers are busy people who aren’t likely curled up by the fire, cat on lap, to luxuriate over this thing we’ve made. Alas.
I see you nodding in agreement. So why is the run-on sentence a curse that is hard to shake from our newspapers? …I submit to you it is because we have fallen out of love with the completely unsexy, round, boring, squat and humble period. “There is not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough,” wrote William Zinsser in his classic, “On Writing Well.” “There is no minimum length for a sentence that is acceptable in the eyes of man and God.”
So how much is too much? Well, usually the problem is that you are trying to express too much or even dissimilar thoughts in a single sentence. A good rule of thumb is that 40 words are too many words for a sentence, but that won’t really help you much. Look for conjunctions like “and” and “but” and see if they aren’t stretching your prose as if it were Silly Putty. Then simply break them apart. Periods are cheap. Use them.
Other times, we are trying to sound smart. That never works. Nevermind that smart people we admire can sometimes be demanding of their readers.
“Don’t tell me about Norman Mailer – he’s a genius,” Zinsser said. “If you want to write long sentences, be a genius.”