On Writing Special Effects: A Little Goes a Long Way

I know you guys love the grammar posts, so we have a special one for you today (and you may realize that I personally have a love for the exclamation mark!)

exclamationmarkAuthor Ben Yagoda brings us some words of wisdom from his new book, How To Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and How To Avoid Them.

Exclamation points, dashes, parentheses, italics, rhetorical questions, and other writing special effects can all be used effectively—in moderation.

Most of us are fond of one or another of these ploys, and we need to be especially careful not to overdo it. This is true of the exalted writers as well as the rest of us.

Tom Wolfe is enamored of both exclamation points and italics, John Irving of semicolons (check his books and you’ll see what I mean), and the New Yorker magazine of commas; Emily Dickinson was quite fond of dashes.

I myself am inexplicably drawn to parentheses. I don’t know about those other worthies, but quite a lot of my revising time is spent getting rid of parens (while still keeping enough of them in my writing to sound like me). If you’ve got a go-to move, my advice would be to make sure, first, that you’re aware of it, and, second, that you keep it in check.

A couple of pieces of punctuation are worth mentioning.

The first is the exclamation point!

This has spread way beyond Tom Wolfe. If you’ve spent any time on e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter these days, you know it’s become the punctuational coin of the realm. Sometimes, one isn’t even enough, and you need two, three, or even four to show adequate enthusiasm.

When I first got into texting with my twenty-two-year-old daughter, Maria, I ended sentences with periods, as is my wont. She told me to use exclamation points or nothing: the periods made it seem that I was being ironic or pointedly unenthusiastic.

But what’s good for texting is bad for text. That is, if you’re writing to be published, it’s good general practice to stay away from exclamations. One exception, interestingly, is when you’re being ironic. Like this! (You can have a little more leeway when writing dialogue, in fiction, but only a little.)

And what of the rhetorical question?

Without question, it’s an overused device, often serving as nothing more than artificial throat-clearing at the beginning of a paragraph. It usually works better to just dive in to what you want to say. The RQ can be useful, but it has to be deployed skillfully—and, once again, sparingly. My first boss, Myron “Mike” Kolatch, of The New Leader magazine, used to say: “When you answer a question, answer or at least address it immediately”—the way I did at the beginning of this paragraph.

That’s in contrast to the sort of thing I often get in student assignments: “Is City Hall in compliance with new federal energy regulations? In 2007, Congress passed….” No good: the question just lies there, puzzling or bewildering the reader. First tell us about the regulations, then explain whether or not City Hall is following them.

Quotation marks

As for quotation marks, I would follow the advice of Gilbert and Sullivan and use them “hardly ever.” I’m not referring to their use to indicate an actual quotation (as I just did) or for the titles of books or movies (if that’s the house style you’re following). Rather, I mean air quotes and scare quotes:

  • I’ve always considered him “a brother from another mother.”
  • My roommate thinks Lady Gaga is “the bomb.”
  • After a while, things got “hot and heavy.”

That’s just bad writing.

The quotes are the punctuational equivalent of a phrase like “Just kidding” or “I’m just sayin’”—that is, a way to try to absolve yourself after using a cliché. There is no absolution: a cliché is a cliché, whether or not it’s surrounded by quotation marks.

If you want to avoid it, you’re going to have to do the work of finding a fresh way to say what you mean. Maybe something like, “Ever since we showed up on the first day of school wearing identical ‘Star Wars’ t-shirts, there’s been an almost mystical bond between us.”

If you feel you absolutely have to or want to use the phrase, just use it, naked, and have the courage to stand behind it. “My roommate thinks Lady Gaga is the bomb.” That wasn’t so bad, was it?

Do you have any questions or comments on these aspects of writing? Please leave your comments and questions below. 

HowToNotWriteBad_CVFBen Yagoda is a professor of English at the University of Delaware and the author of, among other books, “How to Not Write Bad” and “The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing.”

He blogs for the Chronicle of Higher Education and his own blog, Not One-Off Britishisms.

Top image: Flickr Creative Commons Art at Sagrada Familia by Carlos Lorenzo

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  1. says

    This book sounds wonderful — I hope writers read it, and take notice, especially when it comes to exclamation points.

    My hatred for them is close to pathological, but this is a recent development.

    Here’s how I know. I was rereading Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester last weekend, and her characters’ conversations shocked me. Every sentence of dialogue ended with an exclamation point. I reread Heyer often. Her dialogue is light and witty, and it’s the first time she’s made me wince.

    I put my revulsion for exclamation points down to spending too much time reading online.

    • says

      Agree on rereading Heyer. And not just for the dialogue, which is to die for. She knows exactly when to end a scene (in fact, her structure throughout each novel is impeccable), and her vocabulary is exquisite. Sure, writing conventions have changed: she uses a lot of adverbial dialogue tags, for example, which are frowned on now. But overall, she is a delight.

  2. says

    I have a kind of love-hat relationship with exclamation marks. I love to use them but I hate to see them!
    I’ve come to a kind of compromise with myself. When writing, I scatter them about like confetti, even using several at a time if I really feel the need. Then I go back through whatever I’ve written – and take them all back out again.
    This may seem like wasted effort, but I’d be proofreading the piece anyway, and this actually helps me to be more vigilant. And at a more basic level, it fulfills my need to use the blasted things, but equally satisfies the editor in me that wants rid of them.

  3. says

    Not such a great proofreader then – though I actually quite like the idea of a love-hat relationship! (And I think I should be allowed that exclamation mark…)

  4. Charles Harvey says

    I hate sound effects in writing. I’ve seen adult books with “ring ring” and “Knock knock.” It’s horrible when a writer is unskilled or too lazy to describe the sound of a telephone ringing or a knock at the door. It is in those descriptions where we get story atmosphere.
    If the phone rang, I want to know how it rang–long and plaintive or quick and jarring. Same thing with a knock–was it loud and booming or soft and tapping.
    I’ll probably put down a book if I see sound effects.

  5. says

    My proof reader wants to know how I would exist without the exclamation mark, the semi-colon and the word Amazing. Needless to say he has removed many of the offending items from my book. I don’t know if I love him or hate him for it.

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